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Trans rights bill, ‘ex-gay’ therapy ban top Md. legislative agenda

Heather Mizeur, Delman Coates, Montgomery County, Silver Spring, Maryland, Maryland House of Delegates, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Del. Heather Mizeur is seeking to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Efforts to ban discrimination based on gender identity and expression and so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy to minors are top priorities for Maryland LGBT rights advocates during the 2014 legislative session that begins on Wednesday.

State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County) will introduce the transgender rights bill in the state Senate. State Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) plans to bring forth the measure in the House of Delegates, even though the chamber passed a trans rights bill in 2011.

“We didn’t want to lose the opportunity to work with our House members,” said Equality Maryland Executive Director Carrie Evans.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last March by a 6-5 vote struck down a bill Madaleno and state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County) introduced that would have banned anti-trans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation. State Sens. Norman Stone (D-Baltimore County), C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s County) and James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) voted against the measure.

Both Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D-Prince George’s and Calvert Counties) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) back the bill.

“I am very hopeful, given the way the culture has changed in a progressive direction in Maryland and given the support we now have from the Senate and House leadership, we will get the six votes in the Judicial Proceedings Committee to move the bill,” said Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland.

Evans told the Blade the gubernatorial campaign will only improve the measure’s chances of passing during this legislative session.

Lieutenant Gov. Anthony Brown, whom Equality Maryland endorsed last month, told the Blade in a statement he is “fully committed” to passing the trans rights bill this year.

Evans said both Brown and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, have pledged to testify in support of the measure in Annapolis.

“They will use the connections they have in the General Assembly to help us secure the votes we need,” said Evans. “Having Anthony Brown come and testify and talk about it is going to be instrumental in the legislature.”

Bob Wheelock, spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Gansler’s campaign, noted Gansler told Equality Maryland he backs the trans rights bill and would “definitely” sign it if lawmakers approve it. Gansler’s running mate, state Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s County), co-sponsored the measure in the House of Delegates in 2011.

State Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) also co-sponsored the 2011 bill.

“No one should face discrimination on the basis of gender identity — equality in Maryland shouldn’t have to wait this long,” she told the Blade. “I will be a vocal advocate for these important protections to ensure that all Marylanders are treated the same way in their jobs, housing and public accommodations.”

Measure seeks to ban ‘ex-gay’ therapy to minors

State Del. Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore County) has introduced a bill that would ban “ex-gay” conversion therapy to minors in Maryland.

The original version of House Bill 91 only includes sexual orientation, but Cardin’s legislative director Josh Greenfield told the Blade on Tuesday it will be amended to include gender identity and expression. Madaleno is also expected to introduce the measure in the Senate.

“There are numerous gay conversion therapy providers as well as organizations like the infamous International Healing Foundation located right here in Maryland advocating for what I consider very harmful conversion therapies,” said Cardin, noting Prince George’s County Public Schools last year stopped using an anti-bullying curriculum that included references to the Bowie-based organization and other “ex-gay” groups. “To me it is incredibly repulsive.”

Evans told the Blade that Equality Maryland is working with Cardin, who is running to succeed Gansler as attorney general, to “explore some non-legislative options to reach the same goals.” These include working with state boards that govern therapeutic practices in Maryland to change administrative policies.

“If we can do this without legislation, I am all about it,” said Cardin. “I am not interested in the glory. I’m interested in solving problems.”

International Healing Foundation Director Christopher Doyle criticized Cardin and others who seek to ban conversion therapy to minors in Maryland.

“This is not being fueled by mental health advocates,” Doyle told the Blade on Tuesday. “This is being done by political organizations that are more interested in promoting a political ideology as opposed to clients’ rights.”

Maryland lawmakers are also expected to debate the decriminalization of marijuana and the potential legalization of the drug during this session.

Equality Maryland is a member of a coalition of groups that seek to reform the state’s marijuana policy.

Mizeur in November announced she supports the legalization of marijuana as a way to fund early childhood education. Miller earlier this week adopted an identical position.

“Our prohibition laws have been a failure,” Mizeur told Bruce DePuyt of News Channel 8 during a Jan. 6 interview. “Maryland’s marijuana laws have ruined people’s lives.”

08
Jan
2014

Virginia lawmakers kill two pro-LGBT bills

A. Donald McEachin, Henrico County, Virginia, Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Virginia Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-HenricoCounty) introduced a bill that would have banned anti-LGBT discrimination against state employees. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Virginia lawmakers on Monday killed two bills that sought to extend rights to LGBT Virginians.

Members of the Virginia House of Delegates Civil Law Subcommittee in a 4-5 vote struck down a proposal that would have repealed the state’s statutory same-sex marriage ban.

State Dels. Gregory Habeeb (R-Salem), David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), Mark Keam (D-Fairfax County) and G. M. (Manoli) Loupassi (R-Richmond) voted for House Bill 939 that state Del Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) introduced earlier this month. State Dels. Randall Minchew (R-Loudoun County), Terry Kilgore (R-Scott County), A. Benton Chafin (R-Russell County), Jeffrey Campbell (R-Smyth County) and James Leftwich (R-Chesapeake) opposed the measure.

State Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) was not present for the vote due to a death in her family.

“We’re making progress in changing people’s opinion,” Surovell told the Washington Blade after the vote, noting two Republicans supported HB 939. “Five years ago I’m not sure Republicans would have felt comfortable voting for the bill.”

Members of the Virginia Senate General Laws and Technology Committee on Monday in a 7-7 vote struck down a bill state Sens. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County) and Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) introduced that would have banned discrimination against LGBT state employees.

Ebbin along with state Sens. George Barker (D-Alexandria), Charles Colgan (D-Manassas), Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax County), Creigh Deeds (D-Bath County) and Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester) voted for Senate Bill 248. Committee Chair Frank Ruff (R-Mecklenburg County) voted against the measure alongside Walter Stosch (R-Henrico County,) Stephen Martin (R-Chesterfield County), Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland County), Richard Black (R-Loudoun County), Bryce Reeves (R-Fredericksburg) and Thomas Garrett (R-Goochland County).

“These senators refuse to acknowledge what the Virginia public and business community have long understood: protecting LGBT employees is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense and will contribute to the overall success of the commonwealth,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish in a statement after the SB 248 vote.

The House Constitutional Amendments Subcommittee last January killed Surovell’s proposed resolution that sought to repeal the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. State Del Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, on Jan. 9 announced lawmakers will not consider any proposals seeking to repeal the state’s gay nuptials prohibition during the 2014 legislative session.

State Del. Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria) earlier this month introduced a proposed resolution that sought to amend the state constitution to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Virginia. The Alexandria Democrat’s proposal would have also allowed the commonwealth to recognize gay nuptials legally performed in Maryland, D.C. and other jurisdictions.

A hearing in a federal lawsuit that challenges Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban is scheduled to take place in Norfolk on Jan. 30. The American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Virginia in August filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of two lesbian couples from the Shenandoah Valley who are seeking marriage rights in the commonwealth.

It remains unclear whether Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring — both of whom publicly support nuptials for gays and lesbians — will defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban in court.

The first executive order that McAuliffe signed after taking office on Jan. 11 bans discrimination against state employees based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

The Virginia Senate last January by a 24-16 vote margin approved McEachin’s bill that sought to ban anti-LGBT discrimination against state employees. A House subcommittee subsequently killed the proposal.

“Last year, a very similar bill passed the full Senate last year with bipartisan support,” said McEachin on Monday. “This year, Republicans wouldn’t even let it out of committee. I am bitterly disappointed to see us regressing. State employees — like all workers — deserve to know that they’re being judged on the merits, and not irrelevant details from their personal lives.”

State Dels. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) have introduced measures that would ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination in the commonwealth. Simon has also put forth a bill that seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the Virginia Fair Housing Law.

20
Jan
2014

LGBT rights advocates recount Moscow arrests

Red Square, Russia, Moscow, Kremlin, gay news, Washington Blade

Police on Feb. 7 arrested Elena Kostynchenko and nine other LGBT rights advocates in Moscow’s Red Square. (Photo by YAB994 via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the 10 LGBT rights advocates who was arrested in the Russian capital just before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics told the Washington Blade on Saturday that police officers beat and threatened to sexually assault them while in custody.

Elena Kostynchenko said during a telephone interview from Moscow that she and the other activists were arrested when they began singing the Russian national anthem in Red Square. The group that included Ulrika Westerlund and another member of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights held rainbow and Russian flags during the protest.

Kostynchenko told the Blade the officers handcuffed some of activists to a cage in which they placed her and the other protesters once they brought them to a nearby police station.

She said authorities beat one of them and choked another. Kostynchenko told the Blade that officers asked her and another female activist to go upstairs and perform oral sex on them – she noted they also made lewd comments about her body.

Kostynchenko further alleges an officer also spit in her face.

“They didn’t care about anything,” she said.

Westerlund told the Blade on Saturday she and her Swedish colleague were released about an hour after their arrest.

“Me and the other Swedish person didn’t have any especially bad treatment, but the Russians did,” she said.

Kostynchenko said the activists’ lawyer was not allowed into the police station. She added officers refused to give her their names when she told them she wanted to file a complaint against them.

“They said just get out of here,” she told the Blade.

All of the Russian LGBT rights activists have been released from custody. Kostynchenko told the Blade a local hospital treated four of them after they left the police station.

“[The police] didn’t care at all about what can happen to them later,” she said.

Authorities arrested Kostynchenko and the nine other advocates in Moscow hours after police in St. Petersburg took Anastasia Smirnova and three other LGBT rights activists into custody after they tried to march across a bridge holding a banner in support of the campaign that supports the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Olympic charter’s non-discrimination clause.

The St. Petersburg activists face charges of participating in an illegal public assembly. They are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 17.

Smirnova told the Blade on Saturday that she and the three other activists faced additional harassment after their release. She said they spent three hours “in conversations with road police and other authorities” before they finally retrieved their car that had been towed.

Smirnova referenced an old Russian saying that roughly translates into English as “to bring the mess out from the house” as she discussed the Feb. 7 arrests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“It basically conveys the idea that whatever bad is happening, it is a ‘family’ thing and should be dealt with privately,” she told the Blade. “This is what the ill logic behind the wave of harsh detentions on Feb. 7 is.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month those who protest his government’s LGBT rights record during the Olympics will not face prosecution under the country’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors. The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from the Kremlin that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games that are taking place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Smirnova said she feels the Russian government is “preoccupied with making impressions, and will stop at no end to not let any ‘mess’ out from the house.”

“What they strangely fail to understand is that stifling critics – or anyone who has opinions – is revealing the reality in a much more powerful way than any protest demonstration,” she said.

The International Olympic Committee did not return the Blade’s request for comment on the arrests, but IOC Head of Media Relations Emmanuelle Moreau defended them in a statement to BuzzFeed.

“We understand that the protesters were quickly released,” said Moreau. “As in many countries in the world, in Russia, you need permission before staging a protest. We understand this was the reason that they were temporarily detained.”

The Blade’s attempts to seek comment from the Russian government were not successful.

“I think it’s because we’re gays,” said Kostynchenko as she discussed the Moscow arrests. “It’s because we’re like second-class citizens now in Russia, officially by law.”

08
Feb
2014

Poking the homophobic beehive in Botswana

University of Botswana, gay news, Washington Blade

University of Botswana (Photo public domain)

By KATLEGO K KOL-KES

 

With Uganda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe being vocal with their homophobia, it seems University of Botswana students have felt left out of the action. The newly formed LGBT society, UB-LEGABI has subsequently threatened politicians who would not support LGBT issues. This is a drastic move in a country with an antiquated colonial anti-sodomy law. This new campaign has poked the proverbial homophobic beehive on a national level, especially as it’s an election year.

Last year, I debated the chair of the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana on national radio after it employed similar bullying tactics. They warned politicians that it was the EFB’s duty to protect the moral fiber of the “Christian community,” therefore they would de-campaign anyone who supports what they call “gay rights.” Needless to say, the EFB chair’s citations of the Bible were met with well-informed retorts, proving that you don’t pick fights with people you underestimate.

Last year saw a surge in sensationalising homosexuality in Botswana. Each week brought a new “gay” headline, including a rumoured bill to register and imprison suspected homosexuals and sex workers to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. What the UB-LEGABI committee has done with this tirade is enable the homophobes rather than boost any LGBT rights defences. They’ve declared war before understanding the battlegrounds.

Reading through the Facebook responses to the article published in the tabloid newspaper, The Voice, the roots of the homophobic comments are evident: religious bias, masculine insecurity and uninformed notions of homosexuality.

The (unedited) comments included statements like: “wats the use of gays and lesbians, if they cant make babies?”; “why must they force people to accept their lifestyle! this aint America…”; “B4 they come wth their stupid threats, they must b sure of 1 thing “WHETHER THEY ARE MALES OR FEMALES.” Some even blame gays for the lack of rain in southern Botswana, a country that is 80 percent desert.

The greatest shock comes when you read comments calling presidents like Robert Mugabe, Goodluck Jonathan and Yoweri Museveni to Botswana to instill laws like Uganda’s recent measure. Museveni’s declaration that the west is promoting homosexuality in Africa goes to show how uninformed, and religiously blinded, some of our leaders are.

This begs the questions: Is Western intervention in internal affairs worsening the situation? Are U.S. warnings to cut off aid simply making life more laborious for LGBT activists in these countries?

The homophobes fail to understand the far-reaching effects of such legislation as Museveni’s because of their obsession with the act of gay sex. Unfortunately, lesbians are sidelined in the conversation on homosexual acts. Some comments referred to two bearded men kissing, and “how can a man sweat to provide for another man?”

Statements such as these prove that the nation is in dire need of education on the nature of homosexuality before expecting citizens to support threats to de-campaign people they see as their protectors. The plethora of closed-minded comments that acknowledge homosexuality slows population growth, or that this will mark Jesus’ cue to return has made it seem, to the homophobes in Botswana, that they are not alone nor wrong for such ignorant thoughts.

The hive was poked, but of the 467 comments fewer than 10 were in defense of LGBT rights. There isn’t a visible united front of LGBT rights defenders. This only fuels the misconceptions such as Tshenolo Makakeng’s that: “There are less than 60 (which are mostly at UB) gays in Bots.” We must put facts before fury.

What’s been made evident is that we’re growing too impatient with the community we want to “accept” us. National acknowledgement of LGBT existence would suffice because it sets enough of a precedent for educating the laymen. It seems LGBT movements around the world have forgotten the baby steps that have led to U.S. victories over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. It may seem as though background work is dormancy but it’s as important as making grand threats against politicians in an election year. Smoke works better on bees than sticks and stones.

Katlego K Kol-Kes is a writer and activist based in Gaborone, Botswana. She has recently begun covering Botswana LGBT life and has contributed to Afropunk’s Gender Bent blog. Follow her on Twitter.

04
Mar
2014

Hook-up risks higher with non-gay-identified men

non-gay-identified, craigslist, gay news, Washington Blade

Researchers studied Craigslist ads from men seeking sex with non-gay-identified men.

NEW YORK — A newly published study found evidence that men having sex with men use the Internet to find sexual partners who do not identify as gay, either to fulfill a fantasy or because it allows anonymous sexual encounters without discovery.

The findings, conducted by Eric Schrimshaw, Ph.D. at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Martin Downing Jr., Ph. D. of the National Development and Research Institutes, were published in the online journal “Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity” published by the American Psychological Association.

To examine the subgroup of men seeking non-gay-identified (NGI) men in the online sexual marketplace, the researchers reviewed 1,200 Internet personal ads posted on Craigslist and selected 282 for analysis. They performed comparisons of two categories of personal ads: those seeking encounters with NGI men, including straight, bisexual, married, curious and men on the “down low”; and a contrasting set of ads that did not specifically seek NGI men.

Among the ads studied, 11 percent were placed by men seeking NGI partners. Although men who posted NGI-seeking ads were more likely to self-identify as bisexual, married, and/or discreet and to seek out an anonymous encounter relative to the ads of comparison men, only 24 percent of online advertisements seeking NGI men were posted by men who were themselves non-gay-identified. This suggests that many of the posts are placed by gay men seeking NGI men, perceived by some gay men to be more masculine, dominant or “straight-acting.”

Only a small number of ads by NGI-seeking men mentioned safe sex or condom use.

26
Mar
2014

Denmark officials urged to reconsider blood ban

blood donation, Denmark, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo public domain)

Activists in Denmark say the blood ban there that prevents gay and bi men from donating blood lacks scientific evidence, Pink News, a British LGBT news agency, reports.

Six political parties have called on Copenhagen’s Health Minister Nick Haekkerup to revise the ban. In 2011, England, Wales and Scotland introduced a one-year deferral for gay and bi men to donate. Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Edwin Poots has resisted ending the lifetime ban there, Pink News said.

In some countries such as Uruguay, Mexico and Portugal, gay and bisexual men are able to donate blood without issue.

Enhedslisten, Denmark’s most left-wing political party, said lifting the ban would help increase blood stocks, Pink News reports.

07
May
2014

Gallaudet expands LGBTQA Resource Center

LGBTQA Resource Center, Gallaudet University, gay news, Washington Blade

Gallaudet University (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Gallaudet University recently hired its first full-time staff member to coordinate an expanded Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Ally (LGBTQA) Resource Center that was created in 2011 with little notice beyond the university’s Northeast Washington campus.

Kaitlin Luna, the university’s Coordinator of Media and Public Relations, said faculty and administrators at the nationally acclaimed college for the deaf and hard of hearing have recognized similarities between the deaf and LGBT communities.

“The Deaf Community and the LGBTQA Community have many parallels,” Luna said in an email to the Blade. “Both have fought discrimination, oppression, and misconception and both are making strides toward equality.”

Cara Miller, who received her doctorate degree in clinical psychology at Gallaudet in 2011 and was named coordinator of the LGBTQA Resource Center in February of this year, told the Blade in a separate email that the Center has expanded its reach since its founding in 2011.

“Previously the Center was voluntarily staffed by students who went above and beyond to seek resources and offer LGBTQA programming, on top of attending to their academic responsibilities,” she said.

According to Miller, although students have played a key role in the operation of the Center it has always been a university program operating out of the Office of Diversity and Equity for Students (ODES).

It’s currently located in ODES suite of offices in Hall Memorial Building and includes a lounge called The HangOut, Miller said.

02
Jul
2014

Efforts to repeal Virginia marriage amendment blocked

Adam Ebbin, Alexandria, Virginia, Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Virginia Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) in November introduced a resolution that sought to repeal a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Virginia lawmakers this year will not consider proposed resolutions that sought to repeal the state’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.

State Del. Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), chair of the Virginia House of Delegates Privileges and Elections Committee, on Jan. 9 announced it will not hear any so-called first reference constitutional amendments during the 2014 legislative session. He said his committee will instead consider them next year.

“Virginia Republicans refusal to even consider same-sex marriage is backwards and proving increasingly archaic,” said state Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) in a Monday press release that announced Cole’s decision. “Marriage is about loving, committed couples who want to make a lifelong promise to take care of and be responsible for each other, in good times and bad.”

A House subcommittee last year killed Surovell’s proposed resolution that sought to repeal the marriage amendment that Virginia voters approved by a 57-43 percent margin in 2006. The Fairfax County Democrat on Jan. 8 introduced a bill that would repeal the commonwealth’s statutory ban on marriages and civil unions for same-sex couples.

“Virginians are ready to repeal the Marshall-Newman amendment,” said gay state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) earlier on Monday during a Richmond press conference at which state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County), state Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington County), Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish and Rev. Robin Gorsline of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia discussed their 2014 legislative priorities. “This unfair and discriminatory law denies loving couples the chance to build a life together, throwing up burdens that straight couples never have to face.”

The Richmond press conference took place two days after Gov. Terry McAuliffe took office.

The former Democratic National Committee chair on Saturday signed an executive order banning discrimination against LGBT state employees.

McAuliffe, Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples. It remains unclear whether McAuliffe and Herring will defend the commonwealth’s same-sex marriage ban in two federal lawsuits that challenge it.

Other 2014 legislative priorities for LGBT rights advocates include McEachin’s bill that would ban discrimination against state employees based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The Henrico County Democrat has also introduced a measure that would allow public colleges and universities and municipalities to offer benefits to their employees’ same-sex partners.

“Discrimination is wrong, and we should be doing more to prevent it,” said McEachin on Monday.

State Dels. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) have introduced measures that would ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination in the commonwealth. Simon and state Del. Joseph Yost (R-Giles County) have also proposed bills that seek to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the Virginia Fair Housing Law.

Yost and state Del. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) have introduced bills in their respective chambers that would extend second-parent adoption rights to gays and lesbians. Hope on Monday formally put forth a measure that would ban so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy to minors in Virginia.

Cole did not immediately return the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

13
Jan
2014

BHT Awards

The community support organization Brother, Help Thyself held its annual grant awards ceremony at Ziegfeld’s/Secrets on Saturday. (Washington Blade photos by Damien Salas) buyphoto 

28
Jan
2014

Making a stand for free speech in Russia

Russia, propaganda, Vladimir Putin, gay news, Washington Blade, free speech

Since there is real danger of being arrested in Russia right now for showing any obvious signs or symbols of gay pride, Russian gays, gay supporters, and free speech advocates of every stripe could adopt the “Our army is the army of liberation for all workers in the world” image, a famous WWII Russian Army propaganda postcard.

By MICHAEL JAMES BARTON

In the late 1980s, the Poles came up with a clever slogan in their struggle against the Soviet-controlled Polish communists: “2+2=4.” It was the concept expressed by George Orwell in his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that universal truths such as “2+2=4” are a threat to a state built on deceit, a definition that any client state of communist Russia would meet. It was also a rather cheeky way of protesting the communists without appearing to do so: “2+2=4” is hardly the same as “Kick Out the Russians.” Even in the Soviet block, the Polish puppet government found it difficult to conduct a massive round up of citizens displaying placards that purported a basic math equation that any first grader would see as an obvious truth. The Poles beat the enemies of clarity at their own game.

I was reminded of this event during a business trip to Russia last summer, which had just passed an anti-gay law in the name of protecting young children from learning about sexual issues in an age-inappropriate way. Certainly an honest policy discussion could occur on the best way to handle sex education with small children. However, as with much of Russian government action throughout the ages, the “age-appropriate” argument is simply cover for suppressing free speech.

It turns out that what this Russia law does is prohibit speech of any kind related to homosexuality that could be viewed by children of any age. You could be arrested if your travel bag proudly displays your grandfather’s 42nd Infantry Division patch (it’s a rainbow) or for wearing a Will & Grace T-shirt. Under this vague law the government can arrest anyone they wish, as there are few things worn in public that cannot be interpreted as a violation of the law.

Years after the Soviet system collapsed, free speech is still a struggle. Russian journalist and vocal Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was soon followed by the death of her ally, Alexander Litvinenko. Having accused the Russian government of Politkovskaya’s murder he promptly died from Polonium-210 poisoning, the first known instance of an assassination with a personal Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Understandably, both gay and free speech advocates are upset over this law, which adds to signals from the government that it is indifferent to crime if the victim is gay. A Russian official explained to me that a recent attack on a gay victim was not a prosecutorial priority, despite the entire crime being captured on video. It seems that intimidating people from peacefully supporting what they think is equal treatment is far more important than putting criminals in jail.

To combat this terrible situation, I propose a method to protest the Russian law that the government may be hard pressed to retaliate against. Since there is real danger of being arrested in Russia right now for showing any obvious signs or symbols of gay pride, Russian gays, gay supporters, and free speech advocates of every stripe could adopt the “Our army is the army of liberation for all workers in the world” image, a famous WWII Russian Army propaganda postcard. It depicts a Russian red army soldier liberating German-occupied land, with a grateful peasant giving the Russian solider a kiss directly on the mouth. In the spirit of the anti-communist Poles utilizing “2+2=4”, the protesters in this arena could adopt this classic icon – well known in Russia – as their unofficial logo.

What will the Russian government do? Claim that a 75-year-old, well-loved Russian iconic image is and was always a symbol of gay equality? That the state sponsored communist artist, Victor Koretsky, was being subversive? While we should put nothing past a state that wants to exert power over a minority group, I suspect that utilizing this image will allow protesters to be heard while also allowing the Russian government to save some face and not enforce the law on those displaying the Koretsky image. As seen with its declining to prosecute anti-gay crimes, the Russian government knows how to pick and choose what to prosecute and what to ignore.

Michael James Barton is a director at ARTIS Research and has served in a variety of leadership roles on Capitol Hill, the White House and the Pentagon.

18
Feb
2014