Not Going To Russia

Choreographer Ben Wright was invited to be part of a government initiative of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation to launch a special arts program to develop and support contemporary culture in smaller Russian cities. In light of recent violent suppression of the rights of the LGBT community and the passing of an “anti gay propaganda” law Mr Wright declined the offer, explained here in a letter to the events organisers.

I have watched with growing dismay as the situation for LGBT individuals has intensified under Medvedev and Putin’s systematic swathe of anti-gay legislation and institutionalised government homophobia.

Thankfully, the visibility and comprehension of the scale of present circumstances in Russia have been enhanced by the internet and social media. The world is becoming increasingly sensitised to the plight of regular LGBT people and their families and to high profile individuals such as your TV journalist Anton Krasovsky.

I’ve been appalled at scenes from Moscow Pride; sickened by the brutality of unchecked Neo Nazi mobs, and rendered speechless by the barbaric torture and murder of the gay teenager in Volgograd.

Putin has essentially decreed the lethal legitimisation of prejudice and has allowed discriminatory treatment by his law enforcement to flourish. Unless things change unequivocally, the situation is set to escalate with an unprecedented rise of neo-Nazi groups with anti-gay sentiments.

Jenny, thank you wholeheartedly for your invitation to come to Russia, but after extensive thought, and despite a very real desire to meet and share an experience with your dance artists, it would be utterly hypocritical of me to accept your offer under the present political regime.

The New Russia

For many years now violence has been the response of choice for many opposed to demands for equality for the LGBT community in Russia. Such violence often goes unpunished by law enforcement who, more often than not, will arrest participants in the “pro-gay” demonstrations rather than their attackers.

Marches and other demonstrations are frequently banned in Russia with some politicians calling such gatherings an “outrage to society”.

More recently young gay men have been deliberately targeted by kidnappers and subsequently tortured and humiliated, online, by far right extremists opposed to their very existence.

Homophobia has also extended to murder in at least two recorded incidents, both in Volgograd (capital city of Volgograd Oblast in western Russia), this year. In both cases, press reports cite the victim as “unnamed”.

Individuals were arrested and charged with committing both of those crimes.

In June of this year Russia’s parliament, the Duma, passed a bill that outlawed activities that they described as “promoting homosexuality”. The law means that people could be arrested and fined for engaging in any activity deemed to be promoting homosexuality to those under the age of 18.

Foreign visitors can be deported if found to be in violation of this new law that many have criticised for using overly broad language to describe what “promoting homosexuality” actually is.

I cannot consent to an invitation that is funded by a Ministry Department within a State that also promotes the penalisation, maltreatment and stigmatising of LGBT people. I therefore have to decline your generosity, and for that I am profoundly sorry.

As it stands, I perceive this to be the most active form of personal protest I can undertake at this time. Please ensure that my feelings are forwarded to your senior managers and the politicians you work with.

As an artist and a gay man, I cannot support the National Cultural Agenda of a government that has so vehemently declared war on a minority – a minority to which I proudly belong.

I consider my sexual orientation to be nothing short of a gift as it has consistently encouraged me to be aware of alternative perspectives, to look beyond the norm and to question convention.

My ‘queerness’ is an innate part of who I am, a quality that is not only profoundly reflected in the work I make, but has also impacted my entire outlook on life; in my personal history, my sense of humour, my anecdotes, my humility and my criticism of patriarchal condescension.

I belong to an extended society that has (not without a tremendous fight) evolved dramatically over the last 20 years in terms of the rights and equality for LGBT individuals. I am surrounded, inspired and challenged by a whole range of people, many of whom identify as being gay. I have been in a committed relationship for 17 years with my husband and I will not temper or censor who I am one iota. Putin has made it pointedly clear that people like me are not welcome in Russia.

Were I to accept your invitation, I would have volunteered creative provocation, shared my life experience, spoken of about faith and doubt, and eagerly endeavoured to inspire. But being privy to the absurd knowledge that foreigners can now be detained for up to 15 days and deported – as well as fined up to 100,000 rubles for ‘promoting’ a homosexual lifestyle – it would be foolhardy for me to attend these workshops for my own personal safety.

I have no wish to be a martyr Jenny, but instead I am actively finding ways to join the greater public outrage focused at The Duma’s repulsive policies.

Putin’s agenda to engineer and enforce a ‘heteronormative’ culture in Russia is akin to Hitler’s ‘solution’ to the Jews and the minorities he considered undesirable in Nazi Germany.

When asked on Feb 1st 2007 by Marina Lapenkova, “Do you agree with Iuri Mikahilovich Luzhkov’s opinion that a gay parade is the work of Satanists?”

Putin replied,

“With regards to what the heads of regions say, I normally try not to comment. I don’t think it is my business. My relation to gay parades and sexual minorities in general is simple – it is connected with my official duties and the fact that one of the country’s main problems is demographic. But I respect and will continue to respect personal freedom in all its forms, in all its manifestations.” – ref

Where is the respect for freedom in your government’s fascist stance towards LGBT people? The current demonisation tactics are barbaric, and just as violence was the very basis upon which Nazi society was built, Putin and his political cohorts have become perpetrators of terror and brutality.

One wonders about his sudden change of face? What kind of home affairs is he trying to steer light away from? – Hasn’t that historically always been the case? Totalitarian leaders who manipulate the un-educated with noxious propaganda to erroneously create a sense of ‘righteous togetherness’ by creating an ‘other’. An ‘other’ to focus hate and prejudice upon; an ‘other’ who’s demonisation can alleviate potential national dissatisfaction?

It is commonly accepted that homophobia is caused by the fear of a threat to masculine power. Is Putin losing his grip?

Putin is now globally identified as ringleader of hate and your politicians have aligned Russia with the likes of Iran, Uganda, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Sudan, Jordan, Jamaica, Cameroon and Zimbabwe as one of the most dangerous place on earth to be LGBT. My heart goes out to those individuals who find themselves at the mercy of Russia’s new legislation.

I am certain many of the artists I would have met on his trip would identify as LGBT.

Jenny, I would welcome an opportunity to establish contact and begin a dialogue with the individuals you have targeted for this initiative, but for now this would need to be explored through on-line forums or through social media.

The Anthropologist Kenneth Clark said, “Art must do something more than give pleasure; it should relate to our own life so as to increase our energy of spirit.” I am all about the increase of spirit – an increase through compassion and imagination, by engendering curiosity, by bringing people together to question, wonder and to celebrate. It is an anathema to me that your government wants to build these new cultural centres and seek to inspire artists, curators, managers, and creative leaders whilst also coordinating a climate of fear and stigmatisation.

Of course I appreciate the potential social and artistic benefits of developing contemporary culture in smaller cities such as Vladivostok, but my concept of a progressive contemporary society is one that is based on inclusivity; one that is ultimately loving and that encourages an ‘energy of spirit’, irrespective of race, religious denomination, class, sexual orientation or gender.

I sincerely hope that the International Olympic Committee will see sense and cancel the Winter Games. I can only trust that through systematic boycotts and the potential withdrawal of competing countries, the Duma will be forced to consider their abhorrent human rights violations.

Ben Wright is a freelance choreographer and the Artistic Director of bgroup a dance theatre company based in the United Kingdom.

[ ‘Just As We Are’ on Article19 ]