ENCOURAGING ACTIVISM Oleg Klyuenkov and Lyudmila Romodina, from Archangelsk, Russia.
A group of human-rights activists from Portland’s sister city of Arkhangelsk, Russia, was in town this week talking to local officials and community leaders about Russia’s increasing repression of gay rights.
“Members of the LGBT community are afraid of the government,” said Oleg Klyuenkov through a translator this weekend at the Speckled Ax. Klyuenkov and fellow traveler Lyudmila Romodina are members of the gay-rights group Perspective, which was founded in 2007 as the first such organization in Arkhangelsk, a port city of about 350,000 in northwest Russia that was one of the first to adopt an anti-gay law like the one that now reigns nationwide.
The purpose of their visit was twofold: First, to spread awareness about the status of homosexual rights in Russia, where many gays, lesbians, and transgender people “are still in the closet,” Romodina said. Earlier this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors” — a piece of legislation that effectively disallows gay pride parades and makes it relatively simple to discriminate against groups and individuals that promote gay rights.
The activists specifically want to put pressure on Portland officials to discuss human-rights issues later this month, when a delegation from Arkhangelsk arrives to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the sister-city relationship.
They also want to promote engagement as an alternative to boycotts — either of other sister-city partnerships around the country, or of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. Some have called for severing or suspending sister-city relationships in protest of anti-gay sentiment; Portland mayor Michael Brennan has said he sees the benefit in continuing a dialogue with representatives of the region. This puts him in accordance with the Russian activists.
“We are in solidarity with other organizations and we are unequivocally against a boycott,” Klyuenkov said. “We must use this international event as a way to tell people about ourselves, our problems, and human rights in Russia.” He believes international focus will make it more difficult for Russian authorities to evade questions about discrimination, hate crimes, and tolerance.
It’s important to remember that Russian opposition of gay rights is more political than ideological — a political football in a country experiencing some unrest, points out Innokenty Grekov, of the New York- and Washington-based non-profit Human Rights First, which helped organize the LGBT activists’ visit (along with Peaks Island resident Rob Lieber, a local liaison for the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot — catch the film about them November 16 at SPACE Gallery).
According to “Convenient Targets: The Anti-‘Propaganda’ Law and the Threat to LGBT Rights in Russia,” a Human Rights First report published in August, Putin is embracing the antigay measures in order to “curry favor and change the subject away from the question of his own performance.” Meanwhile, “creeping authoritarianism threatens to eradicate the progress of recent years.”
The report also notes that while the United States has an obligation to “seek the ultimate repeal of the law,” US diplomats must also realize that “American pressure could intensify support [for the law] among Russians, many of whom already believe homosexuality is a Western import.” (Catch that?)