Glenn Wigham discusses the fight for LGBT+ rights in Russia and across Eastern Europe, the lessons which can be learned from socialist Cuba – and how they can be applied today.
The rights and protections of LGBT+ people living in Europe have fluctuated in ways that coincide with elective governments, mass-movements and the rise of liberal politics. Progress since the 1960’s, led by LGBT+ movements through to the present day have reached many important milestones. Same-sex marriage is recognised across most of Europe and the Western world, as well as some countries now enshrining rights for gay adoption and transgender people in their laws. But these freedoms gradually erode the further into Eastern Europe you travel and across the border. Ongoing events in Russia, and more recently Poland, continue to demonstrate the rise in anti-gay rhetoric and the active persecution of LGBT+ people.
Over the past decade, many Eastern Bloc countries have either failed to update their laws or have scrapped protections for LGBT+ people altogether. A report (conducted in May 2019) by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) discovered that this reversal of policy has led to the loss of many freedoms, such as Trans people unable to change their names or gender identity in Bulgaria and a lack of progress for social rights in countries such as Serbia and Kosovo. Another increasing worry is the rise in far-right poitical candidates, often with blatant anti-gay agendas, who appeal to the masses by scapegoating civil problems and social issues onto LGBT+ people. Many of these countries are religiously conservative and see homosexual lifestyles as undermining traditional family and societal values. Russia, Poland and Latvia are examples of countries that have been earmarked in an EU ranking of places with the worst human rights record for LGBT+ people.
So what forms of discrimination does this anti-gay sentiment take?
LGBT+ people in Russia face discrimination in many ways – from street attacks and bullying to being barred from certain jobs and same-sex adoption. The idea of gay marriage in a land so venomous towards its LGBT+ citizens is a distant dream. In 2013, Vladimir Putin’s government drafted a law, approved unanimously by the state duma, which banned all forms of ‘gay propaganda’. Outlawing non-heteronormative television adverts, magazines, leaflets, nightclubs and gay events, this law “bans the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”. Seen by conservatives in Russia as a victory for morality and the concept of the nuclear/traditional family, the law has made life extremely difficult for young LGBT+ people in the country to access information on LGBT+ lives, sexual health services and advice lines that could save lives. Support for LGBT+ youth in colleges, universities and councils has been removed entirely, leaving an entire gay generation disenfranchised and alone.
The circumstances that created this law, and the anti-LGBT+ attitudes so prevalent across Russia can be traced back hundreds of years, from the religious teachings of Orthodox Christianity to the gradual criminalisation of LGBT+ lifestyles in the Soviet Union following the post-revolutionary 1917 Constitution. Rewritten by the Bolsheviks, the Constitution scrapped the Tsarist legal code, essentially decriminalising homosexuality. By 1922, the Communist government, rejecting ‘outdated’ ideology of family and class structure, created conditions that meant homosexual lifestyles and sexual science were actively researched, aiding LGBT+ emancipation.
In 1925, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Institute for Social Hygiene in Moscow, published ‘The Sexual Revolution in Russia, which stated that homosexuality was “perfectly natural” and should be legally and socially respected. Despite this progress, the USSR re-criminalised same-sex activity between men in 1933 with five years hard labour in prison. Homosexuality became a taboo subject; fear of discussing it or even acknowledging its existence was prevalent throughout the country, amongst the armed forces and in the corridors of the Kremlin. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev’s liberalisation of certain aspects of Soviet life still didn’t address the persecution of LGBT+ people throughout Russia – anti-gay laws remained despite a minority of voices within the party calling for reviews into their effectiveness and suitability. A poll conducted in 1989 reported that homosexuals were the most hated group in Russian society and that 30 percent of those polled felt that homosexuals should be liquidated.
Contemporary Russia is a dark, frightening place to be if you are an LGBT+ individual. Gay Pride marches in Russian cities are watched over by a huge police presence, or banned altogether. Gay events are supressed and those who speak out receive heavy fines and even jail sentences from the authorities. The European court of Human Rights has even fined the country for not allowing cities to hold pride parades. Combined with the anti-gay propaganda law, public antipathy towards LGBT+ lifestyles and ongoing persecution, the future for LGBT+ Russians looks bleak. Last year reports of homosexual ‘torture’ camps and prisons surfaced from the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which reported the detention, torture and killing of over one hundred gay men in Chechnya, a republic in the Russian Federation. The then leader of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied persecuting homosexuals, famously stating that “there are no gay people in Chechnya”. Mehdi Hasan, a writer for The Intercept, explains that:
“Like every good tyrant, Kadyrov has a list of “undesirables” who are demonized and scapegoated for all of the country’s problems — and top of his list are gay people. It is the Chechen leader who ordered the rounding up and detention of gay men, who he calls “subhuman” and “devils.” In recent years, he has also been “justifying and encouraging” so-called honor killings of gay Chechens by their families.”
These anti-LGBT+ attitudes are also echoed in other countries near their Russia’s borders. In Poland, a 2019 mass-campaign of anti-rainbow stickering and ‘LGBT+ Free Zones’ was led by the conservative newspaper Gazeta Polska, which received international backlash for encouraging hate crimes. With a circulation of 110,000, the newspaper’s reach has that of any English tabloid. In addition, the Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski has called the LGBT+ movement a ‘rainbow Plague’.
With the recent election in Poland of the conservative president Andrzej Duda, who belongs to the conservative ‘Law and Justice’ party, there is international concern over a fresh attack on Poland’s most marginalised communities, particularly LGBT+ people. His election campaign, winning by an extremely narrow margin, was ran on a rails greased with anti-gay slogans and speeches, with phrases such as ‘LGBT are not people’ and commenting how LGBT+ ideology ‘is worse than communism’. He has pledged to ban same-sex marriage, end the rights for LGBT+ couples to adopt children and stop citizens from legally changing their gender. This ongoing deluge of hate and discrimination is more than a historical leftover from past generations – it is a carefully constructed political engine that seeks to drum up mass-support for conservative political careerists and governments by scapegoating societal problems onto a minority group of people – which these politicians can then attack to advance their agendas.
Far-right ideology, especially Fascist ideology, uses conservative values and traditional roles to appeal to groups that share the same social features. Fascist societies are inherently militaristic and have to consolidate approval from the disenfranchised masses through the idea of mass-victimisation – it can be argued that a far-right government must always be at ‘war’, with either a foreign enemy or an internal one. The clearest example of this in action can be seen in how the German National Socialists (Nazi party), led by Adolf Hitler, used scapegoating and mass-generalisation in the late 1920’s/early 30’s to lay the blame for the country’s woes at the feet of already oppressed groups.
The German government blamed the devastation of their country after WW1 on an internal enemy, rather than defeat at the hands of the allies – becoming the ‘stab in the back’ myth that was cemented in the mind of the population. Jewish members of society, socialists and communists were held responsible for ‘internal sabotage’ and faced persecution as a result. Through mass-campaigns of propaganda and protests, orchestrated by Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, an entire group of people within a society became the eventual victims of genocide. Millions were sent to concentration camps, having their identity and humanity stripped away by the fascist machine. The Holocaust proves how systemic and organised persecution can lead to horrifying extremes.
Philosopher and professor Jason Stanley explains that “In the past, fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation. This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.”
Russia and Poland are doing just this, stoking a fire of resentment against the lives of LGBT+ people in order to affirm a false idea of traditional national identity.
For the LGBT+ people in these countries, combating this threat to their community as well as other minority groups lies not within sectarian campaigning (due to the brutality of the police at protests and the opposition faced in public) but uniting in solidarity with other marginalised people, ensuring to educate and reinvigorate a class-consciousness that overcomes the propaganda and lies perpetuated by far-right politicians and agencies. As Communists, we understand that only a mass-movement, led by a united working class, can ever hope to overthrow and construct alternative society that allows everyone to live freely without prejudice and discrimination.
Whilst this is the ultimate goal for any Communist activist, the short term reality is often an uphill struggle. Actively engaging with the public in any country to overturn conservative opinion is hampered by many factors. They include a blatant lack of class-consciousness amongst many minority and working-class communities, with state-sponsored media and anti-left rhetoric forming the foundation that allow many people to be influenced into thinking that societal problems are caused by minority groups, rather than those in power. Parliamentary elections, which can result in Social Democratic parties gaining power can offer hope to oppressed groups as they are usually left-leaning – but the truth is that nobody can truly be free until the capitalist world is dismantled and a new one is built from its ruins.
The shifting of attitudes in a Right-wing society to a Left-wing one, usually by the changing of the ruling Government will, in the modern era, improve the quality of life for oppressed individuals. This can be seen most clearly in a Communist-led country such as Cuba.
Initially, after the Cuban Revolution was solidified in 1959, Cuban attitudes towards LGBT+ people were still negative and discriminatory. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was intolerant of homosexuals, reinforced by traditional attitudes of machismo and masculinity. Immediately following the Cuban Revolution, homosexuality was still seen and promoted as a ‘western curse’ that was now the result of capitalist decadence. Despite this, through a refreshed analysis of Marxist understanding, that was led hand-in-hand with women’s emancipation, Cuba’s attitude towards it’s LGBT+ citizens has begun to change. Fidel Castro himself stated in 1995 that “I am absolutely opposed to all forms of oppression, contempt, scorn, or discrimination with regard to homosexuals”. Furthermore, in a 2019 interview, when Castro was questioned on his Government’s early attitudes on LGBT+ people the lack of action was “a great injustice, great injustice! If anyone is responsible, it’s me…. We had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life or death. In those moments, I was not able to deal with that matter (of homosexuals). I found myself immersed, principally, in the Crisis of October, in the war, in policy questions.”
Cuba’s attempts to correct past mistakes have been exemplary. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro, is one of Cuba’s leading LGBT+ campaigners. She is the head of Cuba’s National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), who advocate and campaign for LGBT+ tolerance and lifestyles in Cuban society, as well as an understanding of of sexual rights and health. LGBT+ education is taught across the country, with the Government itself having criminalised LGBT+ discrimination and allowed free gender-reassignment surgery. Although gay marriage has not yet been legalised, it is apparent that Cuba is aiming to establish liberation for LGBT+ people outside of capitalist heteronormativity – rather than accept conformity to the norm, LGBT+ people will be encouraged to live their lives freely as independent citizens in a country that upholds high standards of freedom, equality and respect, outside of religious and traditional circles. The understanding of LGBT+ rights not as an identity issue, but one of public health is the largest distinction that separates Cuba’s progressive attitude from the neoliberal one that other ‘progressive’ countries take.
From this, there is one obvious conclusion – societies that are led by progressive governments that enshrine socialist ideology are the only societies that will enable the liberation of LGBT+ people, as well as the wider liberation of everyone who suffers oppression and attacks from conservatism and right-wing ideology. As Communists, we must continue our essential work of education to give oppressed people the tools they need to rise up and end the destructive forces of conservatism and far-right ideology. This is difficult when living under Capitalism – a mass of people who have lived under unchanging circumstances from generation to generation will have their opinions and attitudes cemented as time progresses, obvious in places such as Russia and Poland. Tribalism and the absence of education surrounding an individual’s societal circumstances are two key ways the capitalist system can control what people think and do. But with a continued effort of mass-organisation and action, we can hope to overcome this and establish a world accepting for all.
We must educate and organise wherever and whenever we can. Against the odds, sometimes it feels that we’re only a drop in the ocean.
But those drops create ripples.
Katherine Hirschfeld. Health, politics, and revolution in Cuba since 1898.
Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: Us and Them, Penguin Books