Scene in St. Pete’s: Thoughts on Madonna, Boycotts, Human Rights, and Russia’s Youth

Posted by MK on Aug 13, 2012 @ 9:09 am

As many readers know, Madonna last week kept an important promise–made earlier this year–to defy a law in St. Petersburg, Russia, that bans “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderness among minors.” Though some LGBT-equality advocates regret that she showed up at all (saying she should have instead boycotted the city), I join those who thank her for keeping her promise.

While many media outlets have already covered the basic story, I’d like to emphasize a couple points that haven’t received much attention in the press. But first, for those who haven’t heard much about what’s been going on, let’s take a look at the law at issue–and watch a clip of Madonna’s fantastic civil disobedience on stage.

The St. Petersburg anti-“propaganda” law effectively prohibits, among other things, all public advocacy in support of LGBT equality. Granted, the law purports to limit itself to speech or activities occurring among minors. But that does little to narrow the law’s scope when it comes to speech in public, as prosecuting authorities can say that any pro-gay public speech is “among minors” by virtue of being public. The St. Petersburg law is one of several similar laws enacted recently in Russia, which has moved slowly (and often backwards, sadly) on LGBT equality issues, despite some initial progress after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s. Russia decriminalized private homosexual conduct, for example, in 1993.

Back to Madonna: Following up on a concert in Moscow–where she irked Russian authorities on a separate issue by calling for the release of three detained punk rockers–Madonna took time in her St. Pete’s concert to speak up for the gays. In the video clip below, you can see and hear her calling on her fans to support love and equality: “If you’re with me, I wanna see your pink arm band,” she shouts in between songs. (Concert organizers had distributed the pink wristbands, and Madonna and others on stage joined the crowd in wearing them.) “If you’re with me,” Madonna tells the crowd, “raise your arm and show your love and appreciation for the gay community.” The video shows countless arms raised, along with rainbow signs and enthusiastic cheering. (Friendly parental advisory: there’s also one expletive in the video.)

And here’s a longer clip showing more of Madge’s pro-gay speech at the concert (same expletive-advisory applies).

The Advocate reports that

while the wristbands got the majority of the attention, other displays of support were also seeded throughout the event. [The gay-equality group] Coming Out distributed hundreds of rainbow posters emblazoned with “No Fear” and during a video show for Madonna’s song “Nobody Knows Me,” scenes of same-sex kissing were played. At another point, her dancers held pride flags in the air, and later Madge did the same.

Boycotts, Russian LGBT Youth & the Human-Rights-Law Angle

Watching and listening to the excited crowd on the videos, reading through the reports of anti-gay authorities in Russia who are angry over the performance, and seeing how widely the event was covered in the press, I must respectfully disagree with those LGBT-equality advocates who called on Madonna to stay away–that is, to boycott the city. A boycott may certainly make sense as a general matter, and for most people. But if you are willing (and have the resources) to support the LGBT community in Russia with a highly publicized act of civil disobedience in front of thousands of people–in a way that is sure to catch the attention of anti-gay authorities and of people around the world (including, importantly, LGBT youth)–I think you deserve a “pass” for breaking a tourism boycott. Madonna did good here: She inspired thousands of people and brought renewed attention to the crisis faced by Russia’s LGBT community–all in a way that canceling the concert out of respect for a boycott could not possibly have achieved. Even if you’re not usually a Madge fan, you’ve got to give her credit for using her star power in this way.

In addition to commending Madonna, I want to draw attention to two issues that have gotten lost in most of the mainstream press coverage. First, most coverage (or least the coverage in English) hasn’t paid much, if any, specific attention to the group arguably most harmed by the draconian law in question–namely, the minors whom the law is ostensibly designed to protect. (Frankly, I’m not sure that Madonna mentioned this group specifically either.) Granted, it may be difficult to give voice to a group that Russian law and culture have so successfully silenced. But that point is itself something that journalists might note, particularly because the law is, perversely, justified as a protection of children. To the extent any of this website’s readers are aware of resources or news outlets that give voice to LGBT youth in Russia, please send them along. (Information in English, Spanish or French is especially useful as it’ll be easier for me to understand than Russian-language sources, which I’ll have to get translated. But I’ll settle for anything at this point.) Along these lines, it’s worth also mentioning the depressing fact that some significant amount of anti-gay activism has come from religious youth groups in Russia. (See, for example, this story.)

Another noteworthy omission by (much of) the media is the international-human-rights angle: Thanks to this law and others like it, Russia will probably find itself again before the European Court of Human Rights (or “ECtHR”), and it will likely lose, as it did in a 2010 case over Moscow’s ban on gay-pride parades. (The ECtHR, by the way, isn’t part of the European Union; rather, it’s part of the Council of Europe, a separate entity that includes many countries, like Russia, that aren’t in the European Union. The ECtHR oversees compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty ratified by the countries in the Council of Europe, including Russia.)

I of course don’t expect the mainstream press to get into the sort of detail I can get into here. But some brief mention that we’ve sort of been through all this before would be helpful.

The Moscow pride-march case, decided in 2010, involved a famous and tireless LGBT-equality advocate in Russia–Nikolai Alexseyev–who challenged Moscow’s repeated refusal to allow LGBT-rights marches in the city. The ECtHR held that Moscow’s ban on pride marches violated the European Convention’s freedom-of-association and freedom-of-assembly guarantees, as well as its equality provision. And much of the Court’s reasoning in the Moscow pride case will likely apply to challenges to Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” laws. Even if various other legal details will necessarily differ given some differing circumstances, it’s tough to see how Russia, having lost in the 2010 case, could win in a case involving the St. Petersburg law, or a law anything like it. Why is that? Take a look at this key language from the 2010 case:

[T]he mayor of Moscow on many occasions expressed his determination to prevent gay parades and similar events from taking place, apparently because he considered them inappropriate. [The Government, Russia,] also pointed out [to the Court] that such events should be banned as a matter of principle, because propaganda promoting homosexuality was incompatible with religious doctrines and the moral values of the majority, and could be harmful if seen by children or vulnerable adults.

[The Human Rights Convention protections at issue] apply to all assemblies except those where the organisers and participants have violent intentions or otherwise deny the foundations of a “democratic society”. . . . [It] would be incompatible with the underlying values of the Convention if the exercise of Convention rights by a minority group were made conditional on its being accepted by the majority.

. . .  [Russia has] admitted . . . that the authorities would reach their limit of tolerance towards homosexual behaviour when it spilt over from the strictly private domain into the sphere shared by the general public. To justify this approach the Government [of Russia] . . . [relied on] the alleged lack of European consensus on issues relating to the treatment of sexual minorities. The Court cannot agree with that interpretation. . . . There is no ambiguity about the other member States’ recognition of the right of individuals to openly identify themselves as gay, lesbian or any other sexual minority, and to promote their rights and freedoms, in particular by exercising their freedom of peaceful assembly. As the Government rightly pointed out, demonstrations similar to the ones banned in the present case are commonplace in most European countries.[1. I’ve changed some of the formatting of the original here–but not the content–to make the decision excerpt easier to read.]

Assuming the Court sticks by this line of reasoning, it’s tough to see how Russia could justify a law banning LGBT advocacy where minors are present. And it’s likely the Court will stick by this reasoning: In a more recent case involving requests to allow pro-LGBT demonstrations Moldova, the Court reached freedom-affirming conclusions similar to those in the 2010 case.

The Court will probably get a chance to rule specifically on the St. Petersburg law too. The same advocate who challenged the bans on Moscow’s pride marches (Nikolai Alexseyev) was, coincidentally or not, the first person fined under the St. Petersburg law, and his legal challenge to that law is now proceeding through the courts.

It’s a shame, though, that it will probably take years before the ECtHR even gets the opportunity to rule in his favor. How many more rulings, how much more advocacy, and how much more civil disobedience will it take before Russian authorities abandon their effort to suppress pro-LGBT speech in the name of protecting the young lives that they are, in truth, threatening to destroy?


P.S. For more coverage of the Madonna concert and St. Petersburg’s anti-gay law, check out these stories from the ReutersThe Advocate, and Towleroad, as well as this opinion piece from the New York Times and this blog post from last month.



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