Monday, February 24, 2014

How Masha Gessen Failed Russian Gays at Sochi

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the call to action before Sochi from domestic and emigre LGBT Russian leaders: "______________________________________."

As a global queer activist engaged on Russian issues since the early 1990s when the USSR still existed, who organized a speaking engagement with visiting gay leader Roman Kalinan at Washington's now-defunct Lambda Rising book store while the Iron Curtain draped across Eastern Europe, I'm quite displeased with Masha Gessen today. I knew her back in the day when we were both involved with ACT UP and worked with her on Roman's appearance in DC.

(A reminder that Gays Without Borders holds a solidarity rally on Monday, March 3 at 7 pm outside Davies Hall, as Putin's pal Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Info at this Facebook page.)

Masha has penned an offensive piece at Slate titled How the International LGBTQ Rights Movement Failed Russian Gays in Sochi, and not once does she state what the hell she and other Russians asked global activists to do. If they issued a call to action, I missed it. The headline is very misleading since Masha is solely focused on American groups.

She writes that she and prominent Russians including members of Pussy Riot called for a boycott of the Olympics, which didn't materialize. Masha cites plans of the Human Rights Campaign, Athlete Alley, AllOut and Human Rights Watch and celebrities to call attention to the plight of Russian gays:

It all failed. Sure, American Apparel sold the T-shirts, hats, and bags, and [Melissa] Etheridge sold the song, and money was raised, and representatives of Athlete Ally and Human Rights First went to Sochi. But nothing happened there. The movable Pride House idea was nixed by both the Russians and the IOC. None of the competing athletes agreed to wear Principle 6 clothing. Olympic sponsors politely took meetings with human-rights advocates and proceeded to do nothing. 

Did Masha have a plan for success on any front regarding the Olympics? Not that I've seen, but she did jet over to Davos, Switzerland, with the financial assistance and maybe even a private airplane ride from sleazy and corrupt venture capitalists Paul Singer and Dan Loeb. She spoke on a panel that garnered a fair amount of media and online attention, but I don't recall a list of do-able actions for either her super-wealthy friends or ordinary Western gays to carry out. She goes on to say:

Indeed, international media attention to the Kremlin's homophobic campaign seems to have had a major chilling effect on Olympic athletes and spectators, who traveled to Sochi with a set of largely unfounded fears, which kept them from doing anything at all.

There were countless stories in myriad languages about Putin's hateful anti-gay policies and the violence gay Russians face and at least one transgender Italian activist, Vladimir Luxuria, acted up and caused a two-day headache for Olympic and Russian authorities. Granted, not much but what exactly did Masha want others to do in Sochi, while she was comfortably sitting in front of her computer in New York City?

Masha rightly praises courageous handfuls of LGBT Russians who took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg as the games began and mentions the hassles they now face:

Now many of those who were detained will face fines of between $285 and $570 and, quite possibly, further legal and extralegal persecution.

These brave Russian activists came out to protest because they thought that the eyes of the world were fixed on them that day and that their American activist allies in Sochi would support them by word and deed, staging their own protests and ensuring that the thousands of international correspondents in Sochi would hear of their protest and the treatment they faced. They were wrong.

Sounds to me like the Russian activists did not organize themselves very well, surely they expected to be detained and fined for their street protests, and apparently they didn't secure the commitment of the unnamed American allies in Sochi. Sorry, but these are not reasons to say the global gay movement failed the Russians. Does Masha propose any course of action for Westerners? She says:

First and foremost, working with LGBTQ activists in Russia has to involve ensuring that their names and their individual arrests and court hearings are well-publicized in the Western media. It also means ensuring that their fines are paid: The point of those extremely high fines is to open the way for further prosecution for nonpayment. 

How about Masha telling us their names and what's happening with legal proceedings of the Russians in this Slate essay? Nope, she does not follow her own advice and a week into the Olympics she used her access to the New York Times' opinion page, where she's a contributing writer, to publicize troubles with her Citibank gold card in a piece titled Banking While Russian. Not one word was said about those arrests and brave detained activists.

Regarding those relatively paltry fines the activists must pay, in the context of at least $100,000 grant from venture capitalists Singer and Loeb, $150,000 from Stoli, more grants from the Arcus Foundation and American Apparel, cash from the UK and European government and NGOs, in addition to robust funds from the U.S. State Department's Global Equality Fund, there's plenty of funding to take care of the fines.

Not through with trashing the nonprofit advocacy groups, groups I might add that she has not criticized up to now and with whom she has closely aligned herself particularly the Human Rights Campaign, at least for her participation in Davos, Masha says:

Meanwhile, as the founder of an online community for LGBTQ youth faced a court hearing on charges of “homosexual propaganda” on Feb. 20, American groups strategized about their social-network presence during the closing ceremony.

Name the groups and take them to task. Lumping them together contributes nothing to accountability and better performances in the future from HRC, AllOut, HRW, Athlete Ally, and the rest. Adding further insult, Masha ends with this:

The Sochi Games were the U.S. gay rights movement's first real attempt to venture into international work. It was an embarrassment. If U.S. groups continue to do nothing but stage fundraisers and strategy sessions, it will be a disgrace.

Excuse me, Masha, but there have been decades of global activism by U.S. gays on Russia and other countries where LGBT people are persecuted, hated, stigmatized, bashed and also killed for their sexual orientation and gender identity. You've been in bed with those U.S. groups and involved with the strategies, and you paint with a very broad brush your opinion that _we_ failed the Russians.

Since the summer, unpaid activists with groups like Queer Nation NY and Gays Without Borders and other grassroots collectives around the world who don't receive funding from sleazy venture fund capitalists or clothing and alcohol companies or nonprofit foundations or government ministries, have poured time and money into lots of street actions, boycotts of Russian vodka and targeted a few cultural institutions and done all we could with nothing more than our own blood, sweat and cheers to keep the plight of Russian gays in the news.

What did she want us to do, parachute into the opening ceremony with rainbow flags and toss glitter in Putin's face while singing "Over the Rainbow'?

For Masha to be so shortsighted and arrogant in her essay is wrong, especially because she presented no plan of action prior to Sochi and got into bed with Gay Inc and venture capitalists. I say to her, look in the mirror and you'll see who failed the Russian gays.


Rusty said...

Well said, Michael! Masha Gessen should be made aware of the saying "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Anonymous said...


Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do for our community. You are one of the few people who care enough to demand transparency from NGOs regarding the usage of donations received for causes both here and abroad; considering all the funds raised for our brothers and sisters in the Russian Federation, I hope you will continue with your efforts to ensure the funds get to their intended recipients.

Thank you for your accurate commentary on Gessen.

Apparently Gessen, who recently immigrated to the US, has assimilated quickly as she's clearly adopted our nation's motto "all on you, none on us" because the irony is Gessen is the most guilty of failing Russian gays as she chose to abandon them and move to the US.

When I researched her over the summer, I learned that many of the LGBT leaders actually still in Russia believe Gessen had long desired to move to the US and the propaganda law served as her golden ticket to expedite US approval.

I've watched and listened to many interviews with her and she often comes across as unstable or pushes inaccurate information-- frankly her claim that "many of those who were detained will face fines of between $285 and $570" is blatantly FALSE, the maximum penalty for Russian citizens who are found guilty of violating the ban on propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors is 5,000 rubles which at the current exchange rate is $140.49 USD.

I can't believe she has the audacity to call out the international community when no one has failed Russian gays more than her.

Thank you again Michael for everything you do; since I discovered your site a few weeks ago it's become a daily read for me.