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Nikolai Alekseev, interview with Peter Tatchell and Andy Thayer

GLN permalink posted May 18, 2009

Shortly before Moscow Pride, Russia's leading LGBT rights campaigner, Nikolai Alekseev, conducted an interview with veteran British gay campaigner Peter Tatchell and the Gay Liberation Network's Andy Thayer. Here is that interview.

Nikolai Alekseev: Peter, this will be your third time in Moscow. In 2007, you were attacked at the Pride and you still feel the consequences today. Why did you come back to Moscow?

Peter Tatchell: The struggle for LGBT human rights is a global one. We, in the West, should not be complacent and ignore the injustices suffered by out brothers and sisters in Russia, Belarus and several other former Soviet-ruled nations. The issue for me is international solidarity. We need a global movement for LGBT freedom, like we had against apartheid in South Africa. I am coming to Moscow to show my support for the courageous Russian LGBT campaigners. All year round they risk arrest, imprisonment and queer-bashing attacks. These men and women are absolute heroes. I salute them. My presence is one way to show that gay people around the world support the right of gay people in Russia to live their lives without homophobic prejudice, ostracism, discrimination and violence.

When I was beaten up at Moscow Pride in 2007, my neo-Nazi assailants warned me: "If you come back to Moscow, next time we will send you home in a wooden box." But I am not afraid or intimidated. These threats won't deter me or the Russian activists. We are determined to press our case for gay human rights in Russia.

Nikolai: Andy, you hear what Peter said. This is also your first travel to Eastern Europe, what do you expect in Moscow?

Andy Thayer: I'm trying to avoid falling prey to stereotypes and keep an open mind, especially since I have no prior personal knowledge of Russia. Ironically, some of the most prevalent stereotypes about Russia are the same ones that non-Americans have of Chicago - lots of violence, corrupt police and politicians, gangsters, etc. - so I think that a bit of humility is appropriate for any Chicagoan visiting Russia!

I do know that the economic crisis that began in the United States has taken a particularly severe toll on the peoples of Eastern Europe, and so I really admire the courageous efforts of LGBTs in this region to continue organizing for our rights despite economic and political climates that historically have lent themselves to scapegoating and violence against minorities. It can be relatively easy organizing for equal rights when most people can get jobs and don't have to worry about their pensions. It is a far braver thing to do that same equal rights organizing when people's economic fears can drive them into the arms of fascists and other demagogues who try to scapegoat national, racial, religious and/or sexual minorities. This is when voices for equality, like Slavic Pride, are particularly needed.

Nikolai: What does the Moscow Pride battle represent in your eyes, in your respective countries?

Peter: Moscow Pride and Slavic Pride are fragments of the global struggle for queer visibility, dignity, acceptance and human rights. We cannot be content while LGBT people anywhere on this planet are oppressed. Saturday’s Pride Parade is about more than gay human rights. It is about the right of all Russian people to freely express their opinions and to protest peacefully. The ban on gay parades is just one example of the systematic suppression of civil liberties in Russia. This is against the Russian constitution and law, which guarantee the right to protest. We have to defend democratic freedoms, for the sake of all Russians, gay and straight.

Andy: The efforts of Eastern European LGBT's to win the right to assemble in Moscow are useful reminders to sometimes self-satisfied Westerns, whether gay or non-gay, that organizing with others to personally assert your rights is the best way to make rapid social advance.

There is a smugness among many Americans, including LGBTs, that our country is the most advanced in every area of human freedom, and that thus there is no need to get up off of the couch and organize for your rights. This attitude is ironic when you consider that the United States recently had a president who openly condoned torture and launched an illegal war that killed hundreds of thousands, and we have a current president who fails to support our equal right to marry and is rapidly retreating from his previously stated support for equal employment rights in America's leading employer, the military. When you take off the nationalistic blinders, you see that there are many areas of the world that are frankly quite in advance of the United States in some areas of human rights.

American LGBTs and others have a lot to learn from our Eastern European brothers and sisters because you are showing us how we can defend our current rights, and how we can win more of them. If this current economic downturn persists for several years, which is not unlikely, things could begin to get very ugly in even the most socially liberated nations. If that happens, many of us will have to re-learn how to defend our rights, and fortunately Eastern European LGBTs are currently showing us just how to do that.

Nikolai: This year Moscow Pride is organized with Belarusian activists and become the Slavic Pride. What do you think of the importance of organizing trans-national bridge between activists?

Peter: It is great that non-Russian LGBTs are linking up with Russian LGBTs to build a bigger, broader pan-Slavic movement for queer liberation. United we are stronger. I hope that in future years Serbian and Ukrainian activists will join this movement.

Andy: I think that it is marvelous that Eastern European LGBT's are reaching across borders. If we allow nationalism to divide us, who is to say that the divisions will stop there? We are truly a rainbow people and we can only advance LGBT rights in general by respecting the minorities among us – trans people, smaller nationalities, etc. Overcoming national divisions is a very positive step in the direction of LGBT solidarity.

Nikolai: The slogan of the Slavic Pride is "Gay Equality. No compromise." The message is basically that you cannot always make compromise and that you have to fight for your ideal otherwise, you will not reach any result. Did you follow the same way in your activism?

Peter: There can be no compromise on the fundamental principles of equality and human rights. You can't have half equality. We must stand for what is right and just, and campaign to make it happen, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Andy: There has been entirely too much compromise in the American movement since the days of ACT-UP, and as a result we have won virtually no national legislative victories since the first President Bush. Under the first President Bush we were uncompromising in our demands, and as a result we won the Ryan White AIDS Care Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But when a Democrat (Bill Clinton) got into office, most of our leaders ceased making demands of the President, and as a result we got stuck with horrible pieces of legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act and the anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy.

Now with a Democrat in the White House again, many have again ceased making demands of the president, or have muted those demands. If persisted in, this is a disastrous repetition of the Clinton history. In the Gay Liberation Network I'm proud to say that we typically follow the advice of the great anti-slavery organizer Frederick Douglass who said that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never has, never will."

Nikolai: You are both from "direct action groups." Why do you think this is the most effective way to change things?

Peter: There are many different ways to campaign for LGBT human rights. But sometimes people in power won't listen. They are deaf to reason and compassion. In those circumstances, they have to be challenged and defied. Non-violent direct action has long, honourable and effective tradition of getting results when dialogue and negotiation fails - as in the case of the Chartists in Britain who won the vote for working class people in the nineteenth century and in the instance of the British suffragettes who secured votes for women in the twentieth century.

Andy: I see "direct action" organizing as effective, non-naive organizing. Direct action strategy recognizes that the powerful in our society are not our friends, never will be our friends, and that anything good that comes from them will only be as a result of uncompromising pressure that they cannot bear to resist.

On the other hand, groups that focus on lobbying start from the false premise that our opponents in government, the churches and other powerful institutions are merely misinformed. But these powerful people usually know much more thoroughly than we do that they are screwing the vast majority of their constituents. They have small armies of aides and government reports which keep them far better informed than your average citizen could ever hope to be.

The naiveté that informs most lobbying campaigns unwittingly perpetuates the very problems they aim to diminish. Lobbying sends a message to the powerful that their opponents are silly enough to believe that all that is needed is reasoned argument to win changes in government or church policies.

By contrast, direct action lets our opponents know that they will have a battle on their hands unless they give in to our demands.

Nikolai: Russians are always convinced that Russia is different. Speaking about a gay pride, they often say that Moscow is not Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin. What do you think? Do you think Moscow is so different in terms of gay rights today than was Chicago or London back in the 60s.

Andy: Ha ha ha. I think that every nation thinks that it is "special" - it's a conceit. To our Russian friends I would say that Chicago in the early 1960s in many respects resembled what I hear of Moscow today, and in some ways arguably was worse. The mayor of Chicago (father of the current Chicago mayor) allowed, if not encouraged his police to sweep through gay bars, arresting everyone, stealing from the patrons. Most arrestees would have their names and addresses printed in the paper, leading many to lose their jobs and families. The few businesses that did cater to gays were almost all controlled by organized crime.

How did this change? Mainly by people doing the sort of things that Slavic Pride is planning for this Saturday. That is why this Saturday's action is so important, and not just for LGBT's, but for anyone who wants to win democratic freedoms.

Peter: We live in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world. Russia is part of the new era of humanitarian globalisation, which is advancing the principles of universal human rights right across the world. It embodies the idea that no nation or people should be deemed unfit or exempt from human rights. Russia today is a bit like Britain in the 1970s. It has repealed the criminalisation of same-sex relations, but the society is still deeply homophobic. Gay Russians suffer queer-bashing attacks, blackmail, verbal abuse and discrimination in education, housing and employment. This shames the great Russian nation.

Nikolai: Peter, you dedicated your life to activism. Would you change something if you could go back in time?

Peter: For all my flaws and failings, I don't regret my life of LGBT campaigning. Over the last 42 years, I have witnessed and supported momentus extensions of LGBT human rights in Britain and many other countries, including Mexico, South Africa, Latvia, Spain, Nepal, Brazil, the Philppines, and even in China, Vietnam and Cuba. The only thing I would change is that I wish I could have done more sooner. In my experience direct action works. It gets results, when lobbying often fails. Protest is the lifeblood of democracy. If you don't ask (or demand), you don't get.


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