A week before Kris van der Veen was arrested in Russia, on suspicion of “promoting gay propaganda” to minors, he was reading about Ivan Dusak, or Ivan the Fool. A popular figure in Russian folklore dating back to the 16th century, Ivan is the youngest of three brothers who set out to seek their fortunes. Fairest of hair and bluest of eyes, Ivan is seen as simpleminded by his greed-driven siblings. But he follows his heart – always eager to help others, even if it puts himself at risk. Ivan’s naïve derring-do vanquishes the dastardly deeds of villains and wins the happily-ever-after love of princesses. Not such a fool after all. Kris van der Veen would be perfect casting.
Early this morning when greeted with the headline – Four Dutch Nationals Arrested in Russia – I knew immediately what it must mean. Three months ago I participated in an Amsterdam demonstration against the impending Russian anti-gay law during President Putin’s state visit to the Netherlands to celebrate 400 years of friendship between the two nations. I wrote about it then (Queering Vladimir Putin) and again two months later when the law was passed (Russian Nutcrackers, Silent Fairies.)
I’ve watched the issue disappear into the shadow of stories about marriage equality and the demise of DOMA. The LGBTQ community and media in the US and the UK seem more interested in same-sex wedding cakes than gay rights in Russia that are shrinking like a set of traditional matryoshka nesting dolls. I mean, this is the country whose capital city has banned gay pride parades for the next 100 years!
Kris van der Veen is a Green Party councilor and chairman of the LGBT organization in the northern Dutch city of Groningen. He has been working on a documentary about the situation in Russia called 5000 Ruble. He and his team traveled to St. Petersburg where the met with local activists. From there they went to a weekend Youth for Human Rights Camp in Murmansk, sister-city of Groningen near the Finnish border.
On Sunday Russian police and officials of the Federal Migration Service arrived at the campsite and questioned participants. Viewing video material gathered, the age one of the young people interviewed was questioned and the Dutch visitors were told they had violated article 6.21.3 – “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among the under-aged, spread by a citizen of a foreign country.” They were taken into custody, along with some local activists, and later released due to an “administrative error.” The video material has not been returned but van der Veen insists the incident will not deter him from finishing his documentary. His motto:
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
What happened yesterday is the direct result of a law signed by President Putin on June 30th that allows the arrest and detention of gay or “pro-gay” foreigners for 14 days before being expelled. Ireland issued a travel advisory to gay and lesbian tourists traveling to Russia.
I’ve seen no other such government action – thus far. Some 30 Mexican LGBTQ activists demonstrated against the anti-gay crackdown in front of the Russian embassy in Mexico City last week, but I’ve seen no news of other such organized protest outside of Russia – thus far. (Except for the Amsterdam action I attended back in April, of course.)
The strongest official statement I’ve seen issued to date has come from Iceland. Mayor John Gnarr of Reykjavic (which has been Moscow’s sister-city since 2007) filed a motion in a city council meeting two weeks ago proposing “amendments to the existing agreement between the two cities or terminate it all together…” Not so surprising when remember Iceland had the first openly gay Prime Minister, or if you know the mayor (a former comedian) donned drag to support his city’s gay pride parade just two months after he was elected in 2010.
Yesterday’s New York Times carried an op-ed piece by actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein. Ironically coinciding with the arrest of the Dutch group but clearly written earlier, he notes the present danger to tourists and foreign nationals. His focus is on the coming 2014 Winter Games to be held in Sochi (as well as recent and disturbing adoption issues in Russia.) He urges world leaders and the International Olympic Committee to speak out against the Russian laws and ends with a stern warning:
“In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”
There will certainly be no Rainbow House for LGBTQ athletes in Sochi as there was in Vancouver in 2010. But Russian officials might have at least one openly gay athlete to contend with. New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup competed in Vancouver and if he qualifies to compete in six months he plans to wear the rainbow pin he got at the London 2012 Olympics. In the video below he told Vocativ that he has no intention of crawling back into the closet for anyone. “If that gets me in trouble, then I guess so be it,” he said, sounding not unlike the hero of Russian folklore: Ivan the Fool. The global LGBTQ community is in need of many more such fools if there’s to be any kind of a happy ending for our LGBTQ friends in Russia.
Down and Out in Sochi: