Tuesday, May 29, 2007
by Wayne Besen
The first sign that Russia's march toward freedom was on a downward spiral came on June 16, 2001, when George W. Bush said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."
It turns out that Bush's judgment on Putin was only eclipsed by his decision that fateful summer to add "My Pet Goat" to his reading list at the exclusion of a memorandum titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
Sixteen years after the collapse of communism and only seven years after Putin's coming to power, Russia is headed in the wrong direction. Putin's crooked authoritarianism threatens to set off a new Cold War and erase the hard-won era of peace. Indeed, Alexei Bayer
, a guest columnist in the St. Petersburg Times
, said Putin's rule is noted for its "endemic corruption, rollback of democracy, blatant confiscation of private property and murky political murders."
The Committee to Protect Journalists described Russia as one of the 10 countries that had seen the greatest decline in media freedoms
during the past several years. Since Putin came to power, at least thirteen journalists have been whacked, turning Russia into a "Soprano-state."
In any dictator's playbook, the way to justify grotesque abuses of power and gain legitimacy is to wrap oneself in the flag and claim to be the great defender of traditional morality. Thus, it is perfectly logical that gay pride marchers were met with deplorable state-sanctioned (or at least supported) violence last week in Moscow.
A rule of thumb is that the less freedom a nation offers, the more a regime cracks down on its gay population. The more liberty enjoyed by gay citizens, the more freedom shared by the general citizenry. With Putin's regressive Russia having little to offer other than fiery nationalism, it should be no surprise that flag waving hooligans confronted the brave gay men and women that stood up for their civil rights.The chaotic scene
at the unauthorized Moscow rally was an appalling example of naked right wing brutality. The peaceful marchers were met by neo-fascists and loving churchgoers who hurled insults, Bible verses and eggs. Several of the demonstrators were slugged on film, while the police sat by idly. When they finally did get off their totalitarian asses, it was to arrest the innocent gay rights advocates, while the attackers were allowed to waltz off into the sunset.
Many of those arrested (and punched) were foreigners who came to support Russia's oppressed gay community. The contingent included British singer Richard Fairbrass, of the band Right Said Fred and London activist Peter Tatchell. Also arrested were German Green Party MP, Volker Beck, and a European Parliament deputy from Italy, Marco Cappato.
Watching the gay rights activists get beaten boiled my blood. In essence, an estimated one hundred violent anti-gay punks were intimidating an entire population of gay Russians with the message: Stay in the closet or face violence. I'm traditionally for peaceful protests, but we can't forget that Stonewall
included fighting back. A part of me thinks we should show up next year in larger numbers with the idea that we are going to finally put our overpriced gym memberships to good use.
Of course, my retributive thoughts are tempered with the realization that after Stonewall, the rebelling drag queens were not iced with polonium-210, like former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko
. Nor, were they gunned down in cold-blood like journalist Anna Politkovskaya
. A Russian Stonewall might very well end up as a row of headstones, in remembrance of dead activists.
The blame for this melee rests at the feet of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who had banned the march and previously called such demonstrations "satanic," as well as Putin who has increasingly turned his nation into a KGB-style police state. While it is easy to pigeonhole this brawl as a fight over gay rights, it has much broader implications and is indicative of future relations between Russia and the West. On one side of the divide rests civilization that respects basic human rights. On the other, an emerging bellicose monstrosity that is a witches brew of past Soviet repression, combined with a new taste for unrestrained greed fueled by oil wealth.
Until the gay pride flag flies proudly in the shadow of the Kremlin, relations between Moscow and the West will remain shadowy. In the modern world, we simply don't find free countries that brutalize their gay citizens. If Moscow wants to go the way of Zimbabwe or Iran, their gay populace will suffer, but so will all Russians who will lose their membership in the economically and culturally advantageous world of civilized nations.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
by Wayne Besen
Mitchell Gold is an openly gay, Jewish furniture magnate who is larger than life in small town America. Where most people leave New York to live unassumingly in the countryside, Gold has brought charisma and pizzazz to the sleepy hamlet of Taylorsville, North Carolina.
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture factory is the largest employer in the area. It has offered Gold a unique opportunity to converse intimately with a wide variety of people in rural America. In many cases, he has challenged their basic assumptions, engaged in sensitive debates on the separation of church and state and examined the underpinnings of anti-gay sentiment.
What is most striking about Gold is that he is "out," with a capital O-U-T. While most nationally known spokespeople have a platform in a large gay community, the Internet or on television shows, they can generally walk down the street without being identified as "the town's gay activist." This is not the case for Gold, who is seemingly recognized by everyone within a 25-mile radius.
As a result of his work for the GLBT community, the Advocate magazine named him one of its 2006 "Persons of the Year" and this month, Out Magazine called him one of the "Top 50 most powerful gay people in America."
With his penchant for challenging the status quo, it is no surprise that the organization founded by Gold, Faith in America - which is led by Rev. Jimmy Creech - has launched a controversial and ambitious venture to take on anti-gay prejudice.
The "Call to Courage" campaign is a five-city experiment that will "educate the public on the parallels between historical precedents of religion-based bigotry and today's struggle for full and equal rights for gay people." Faith In America's initiative officially kicked-off May 6 in Ames, Iowa. The campaign, which is largely taking place in key presidential primary states, will proceed to Reno, Nevada; Manchester, New Hampshire; Greenville, South Carolina; and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The campaign will include grassroots organizing, direct mail, paid advertisements and a Town Hall Meeting. However, what is generating the most buzz are the in-your-face advertisements that flat-out call our opponents bigots and claim the Bible affirms gay people.
One billboard in Iowa says, "Religion-based bigotry, race and gender yesterday...sexual orientation today." A print ad on Faith in America's website shows an anti-gay Klan rally with one "ghost" holding up sign that reads "Obey God's Words." Underneath reads a caption, "Religion-Based Bigotry. It's not new. History has proven it's horribly wrong."
The idea of using advertising to attack homophobia is not new. In 1989, Hunter Madsen and Marshall Kirk suggested in their literary classic, "After the Ball," that this potent medium be used to advance gay rights. They advocated warm and fuzzy ads to introduce the public to gay people, followed by more shocking ads that tied today's anti-gay messengers to the haters of the past, such as Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. The first part of this strategy was somewhat successful, as most Americans have been introduced to positive images of GLBT people. Indeed, Hollywood has reduced the need for such efforts by infusing gay characters into storylines.
Until now, however, no one has attempted the more risky advertisements on a large scale. In a sense, this is unknown territory and it will be fascinating to see how the public responds. Already, one point of resistance is African American preachers making the inane argument that gays have not suffered as much as black people - as if we are in a victimization contest.
"Gays aren't denied the right to vote," Rev. Keith Ratliff of Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church fumed in the Des Moines Register. "Gays were not considered to be three-fifths of a person. Gays did not suffer through Jim Crow, separate restrooms and water fountains, sitting in the back of the bus and segregated schools. Gays were not enslaved for more than 200 years in America, lynched and bombed by the thousands, like the black people were."
Yes, gay people were just tossed in Nazi concentration camps, lobotomized, institutionalized, jailed, fired from jobs, beaten senseless and murdered for who they are. And, of course, there is the slow spiritual and psychological death of the closet suffered by so many Ted Haggard types. But I suppose we have not suffered enough for the satisfaction of Rev. Ratliff and others of his ilk.
Perhaps, an exhibit highlighting the horrors faced by GLBT people throughout history might supplement Faith in America's campaign. This way, people at the Town Hall meeting, for example, can fully understand the toxic consequences of anti-gay rhetoric and discrimination.
Gold has taken a daring step and hopes his success in the business world can be duplicated in the advocacy arena. At the very least, if the moral clarity of these ads forces the presidential candidates to speak clearly on GLBT issues, the bold campaign will have made its mark.