Russian Paratroopers at an anti-homophobia rally in Moscow (source: Wikimedia)
Only 18 months ago the drive for global LGBT equality could be categorised as "two steps forward, one step back". Despite inequalities remaining in much of the world, there had been a number of promising developments, such as equal marriage in the UK, Ireland, Finland, Luxembourg, the USA, parts of Mexico and many other places. An increasing number of sportspeople, politicians and celebrities were coming out as LGBT, and trans equality was becoming an urgent action issue in many countries.
Today, however, the situation feels more like "one step forward, two steps back", with various geopolitical changes creating a more negative outlook. As Peter Tatchell correctly points out, all struggles for equality create a backlash. Is that what we are now seeing in certain regions of the world?
Disturbing developments in the territories of the former Soviet Union, for example, suggest that life for LGBT inhabitants and allies in those places is getting worse. The well-known situation in Chechnya is one example of a Russian satellite region that appears to have embarked on a campaign to use LGBT people as scapegoats for persecution, under the guise of a moral campaign. Men who are, or who are perceived as, gay have been detained, abused, tortured and murdered. Reports of these atrocities have been hard to verify, but two recent events appear to validate the worst fears of the international community: the brave testimony of Maksim Lapunov, who escaped to tell of his experience of torture at the hands of Chechen authorities, and the recent disappearance and apparent abduction and murder of Zelimkhan Bakayev, a 26 year-old gay Russian pop singer.
In another concerning development, Human Rights Watch recently reported that police in Azerbaijan have begun arresting and torturing men presumed to be gay or bisexual, as well as transgender women. According to Human Rights Watch interviews with released detainees and lawyers, police have detained dozens of people on dubious charges since mid-September, beating and using electric shocks on some of them to obtain information about other gay men. Rather than deny these abuses, government officials have instead attempted to justify them on moral and public health grounds.
Tajikistan has also drawn up a register of hundreds of gay citizens 'to protect them from STDs'. Operations called 'Purge' and 'Morality' have been used to identify 367 LGBT people. The state prosecutor's magazine, Zakonnost, indicated they would be subject to mandatory testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Human rights observers are warning that homophobic policies are spreading throughout the central Asian region, with the usual double-think of "We are rounding them up." and "There are no homosexuals here." (see the pronouncements of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya). It has long been known that these areas are not respectful of LGBT rights, but is there a reason they have started going beyond intolerance and exclusion to actual persecution and extra-judicial killing of their LGBT citizens?
These smaller states rely a lot on trade with Russia, and generate a lot of local income from their nationals working in Russia. Trade between Russia and these states is on the rise, as the West reduces its regional influence. Yet Russia's influence is not just economic but cultural. Regional leaders like the 'strong man' role that Putin plays, and there is an element of currying favour with one's powerful neighbour. So when Russia enacted anti-LGBT legislation, the satellite states may have seen the persecution of LGBT people as a way to curry favour with Moscow. It certainly plays to the Slavic cultural background that does not value diversity or difference, and has very set views on traditional masculinity. It may well be the leaders of these states see some advantage in targeting LGBT people to show they are socially conservative.
Whatever the drivers of these disturbing trends, the international community needs a campaign of sustained objection. It requires the combined efforts of advocates, governments, NGOs and businesses in order to limit and unwind such persecution. The situation also calls for practical assistance to those affected: safe places to meet and network, a platform to have their voices heard around the world, an underground escape route (as is happening in Chechnya), and the offer of asylum and the chance to begin life anew in one of the scores of countries around the world that offer safe haven. A lot of this is being done by international companies in the relevant states, albeit often below the radar. The international community has an obligation to reject and condemn the cynical abuse of power of states that persecute LGBT people, but we also need to be realistic - these satellite states are financially and culturally dependent on Russia. Without change in Russia, or an ability for the West to influence these satellite states, any improvement is likely to be difficult and only temporary, yet we must continue to push.