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SBS spoke to Russian journalist, author and activist Masha Gessen about the similarities between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Simon Copland

2 Dec 2016 - 11:32 AM  UPDATED 2 Dec 2016 - 1:31 PM

In 1991, Russian journalist, author and activist Masha Gessen was the only publicly person out in Russia who was not a full-time gay activist. Over time, she saw this trend change, as homosexuality became more accepted in the post-Soviet Union era, but was forced to leave once again in 2013 after anti-gay propaganda laws were passed, fearful that she would lose her children.

Gessen now lives in New York and is currently visiting Australia to give a talk in Bendigo about Donald Trump's lessons in American democracy. I spoke with her about the situation in Russia, and whether the backlash against queers could be replicated with a Trump Presidency in her adopted US.

While international coverage of the anti-gay propaganda laws has died down, Gessen said that the impacts are still very much being felt on the ground.

“The ultimate result of it has not been the ban on gay propaganda, the ultimate result of it has been a huge increase in anti-gay violence,” Gessen explained.

“It’s all sorts of violence," she continued. "People are getting beaten up on the streets, people are getting beaten up in gathering spaces, people are getting killed, people are getting killed in their own apartments in part because public spaces have become so unsafe for queer people so they retreat to their own apartments and then - of course - they can be killed there.”

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This violence has been explicitly supported by the highest elements of the Russian political establishment. The anti-propaganda laws, she explained, were designed to signal that queer people are outside the law, giving space for the development of vigilante groups such as “Occupy Pedophilia”. Occupy Pedophilia entraps gay men on social networks, humiliating and often bashing them on camera. One national politician, Vitaly Milonov, has been an active member of this group, at times turning up to queer events with groups of thugs to bash participants.

It is here that we can understand the broader context of the campaign—while it has been explicitly homophobic, Gessen argues that in a way it was an accident that queers ended up as the target.  

“When Vladimir Putin came to Presidency for the third time in 2012, he was faced with mass protests for the first time in his political career,” she explained.

“There were protests all over Russia, hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. He was looking for a way to respond to those protesters and specifically for a way to discredit them, and queerbaiting turned out to be the way to go.”

“So in a way, it was almost an accident that Putin picked on the queers, but it makes a lot of sense," she says, noting that "it’s sort of the perfect target."

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"We are other, an invisible minority," she continues, adding that "an invisible minority is always much handier than a visible minority because you can paint it into much more of a monster."

"Most Russians believe they’ve never met a gay person, so that makes it very easy again to paint gays as both less and more than human," she explains. "Less than human in the sense that they're un-human, animal-like, and more human in the sense that they are monstrously powerful, and therefore scary.”

Queers have become the perfect group to paint as ‘anti-Russian’, tapping into Putin’s "hostile west" narrative, she notes. 

“In that sense, picking the queers as a minority to scapegoat is really an inspired choice. Because when the Kremlin television says 'there were no gay people in Russia before the Soviet Union collapsed', that’s sort of true.

“There were certainly people who had sex with people of the same sex and who loved people of the same sex and who formed all sorts of interesting relationships that involved people of different sexes, but there was no group identity," she says. "There was nobody who said ‘I belong to such and such a group and there are rights that are mine because I belong to part of that group.’ That happened after 1991."

“So that’s a very easy thing to point to and say look, here’s shorthand for everything that makes you uncomfortable, everything that has changed in your life, everything that you want to reverse is handily summed up by this strange import from the West; the queers.”

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This is where Gessen fears the election of Donald Trump. While Trump cannot run an anti-Western message like Russia, Gessen explains that his narrative is actually very similar to Putin’s.

“What autocrats do, or what demagogues do, invariably, is appeal to an imaginary past. That’s why the queers are so convenient. You can sort of say ‘remember there was a time when you felt better, when the world seemed predictable’.

“That’s really what Trump was doing, that’s what ‘Make America Great Again’ stands for; this idea that there was a time that things worked as they should, and he is going to take you back to that time in some magical manner.”

This message, Gessen fears, could lead to a backlash against the massive cultural change that has occurred around queers in the past decade.

“I think that when people talk about gender ideology being forced onto you, they tap into a deep sense of discomfort that is quite widespread in the United States. When they talk about a backlash against political correctness, or the tyranny of political correctness, they’re tapping into that same sense of discomfort.

“It’s not possible to have cultural change that fast and not see backlash, but we are going to see backlash of steroids because of the Trump election.”

Trump will not just have an impact at home. During the Obama Administration US foreign policy has become more active on international LGBT rights. This has included the state department funding local LGBT organisations, Ambassadors marching in Pride parades as a way to provide support and security for local participants, and the US working actively to counteract a growing block of nations within the UN loosely known as ‘traditional values coalition’. Gessen fears this will be lost under Trump.

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“One of my greatest fears is that one of the first things to go in the state department will be support for LGBT people and LGBT activists around the world.

“American diplomacy has been very important in fighting the traditional values coalition in the UN. With Ambassador Samantha Power, who has been serving as American Ambassador to the UN, there has been a force of fifty American career diplomats who have worked to advance LGBT measures in the UN, and to keep at bay the traditional values coalition.

“We’re going to lose that, we’re going to lose that probably overnight with the appointment of the new US ambassador to the UN, who is also another homophobic pick, and who also has absolutely no international experience.”

Despite the bleak outlook, Gessen remains inspired by those who are still working on the ground in Russia.

“There are a lot of very very brave wonderful people in Russia still,” she said. “They (community organisations) had to reformat themselves really quickly from community building organisations to political organisations. It was very stressful and difficult and I think a lot of the organisations came through it very well and I have a lot of respect for the people who keep plugging away.”

Gessen in particular pointed towards Children 404, an online space for queer teenagers.

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“It’s faced a lot of attacks. It has actually been targeted directly by the anti-gay propaganda law, so they keep having to pay fines and they keep having to create new sites because old sites get shut down by the authorities or their communities on social networks get shut down by the authorities.

“And yet it is an indispensable resource for thousands and thousands of queer teenagers who write in, and who have been embattled more than ever before because anti-gay stuff has been such an important part of the public sphere.

“That is very much a form of resistance.”

Despite this, for queers in Russia, it's all just about getting by.

“At this point the measure of success is survival for queer people in Russia and for queer organisations in Russia. And I think that's an honourable goal.”

Masha Gessen is currently visiting Australia, talking about Russia, queers and the Donald Trump Presidency. She will be speaking at a sold out talk - Donald Trump's Lessons in American Democracy -  in Bendigo on Monday, December 5th. The event will be live streamed via the Wheeler Centre.