Martine Rolls: Russia's about face on gay rights

By Martine Rolls

I was among the many who excitedly tweeted best wishes and congratulations when New Zealand became the 13th country to legalise gay marriage in April this year.

Sure, there has been a huge amount of debate around the topic and not everyone is comfortable with it, but since Parliament voted in favour of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill it seems most of New Zealand is okay with it.

Brazil, Britain and France have since followed suit and Thailand, where gender non-conformity receives a high degree of social acceptance, has now opened gay marriage debate in Asia.

In the US, a recent Supreme Court ruling made it unconstitutional for the federal government to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

The States' highest court also dismissed a case on California's ban on gay marriage and these developments have raised campaigners' hopes of achieving nationwide legalisation.

Quite the opposite is taking place in Russia.

I first noticed something was up in Russia when I saw a photo on Facebook of actress Tilda Swinton showing a gay pride flag in front of the Kremlin in Moscow.

I found a post on Twitter from Swinton's agent Christopher Hodell that read: "Please share this message from Tilda: 'In solidarity. From Russia with love."'

It refers to a broadening crackdown on the rights of Russia's gay community.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but political actions of late seem to be steering towards a turnaround.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning "gay propaganda" which bans and imposes fines on gay groups, gay books and periodicals, gay pride events, and other "promotions" of homosexuality.

Putin also signed a law banning gay adoption by foreign same-sex couples, and a law allowing the police to arrest tourists and foreigners suspected of being gay or pro-gay and detain them for up to 14 days.

For this, Russia has come under international criticism, including disapproval from the European Court of Human Rights.

New Zealand news sources have reported very little about it online, so I turned to a number of international news sites.

On The New York Times' website it was reported that anti-gay sentiment has been spreading in Russia's conservative society for some time now, and that it is strongly encouraged by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

On social media platforms, Putin's campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is being compared to Hitler's strategies of demonising a minority for political gain.

Not everyone knows that Hitler did not only target Jewish people with his hate campaigns.

Along with socialists, communists, intellectuals, gypsies, Polish people, freemasons, Jehovah Witnesses, and people with disabilities, many gay men and women were also among the Holocaust victims.

Calls from activist groups and celebrities for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are also getting stronger and again, social media sites are used to spread the word.

Russia's new regulations are rather vague and a law that allows the police to arrest foreign nationals if they suspect them of being homosexual, lesbian or "pro-gay" must certainly be off-putting for the more liberal athletes, sports reporters, and spectators.

There are strong calls for the International Olympic Committee to ask Russia to retract its anti-gay laws and I am curious to see what will happen between now and February 7, when the opening ceremony for the next winter Olympics is set to take place.

The Switzerland-based IOC issued a statement this week, saying it would "work to ensure" the Olympic Games is open to all, free of discrimination, including spectators, officials, media and athletes.

"We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle," the IOC said.

"It remains to be seen whether and how [the new law] will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi."

I have been interested in Russia since I was a child and it's a country I've always wanted to travel to.

Russian history, culture, art, architecture and literature are fascinating and a journey on the Trans-Siberian express has been on my wish list forever.

I suppose it'd be best not to pursue this passage any time soon.

I am as pro-gay as can be.

Martine Rolls is a Tauranga writer and digital strategist -

- Bay of Plenty Times

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