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Russia's "Anti-Gay" Laws Aren't Most Worthy of Your Protest

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Since it seems we as a nation are now incapable of consuming any news that lacks a Rob Ford connection, the fact that many of Canada's biggest cities have taken to flying rainbow flags over their city halls during the Sochi Olympics made headlines last week primarily because the Toronto mayor is against it.

Ford finds the fad offensive presumably for the same reason he finds gay pride parades offensive; he's an old-fashioned, conservative guy who gets squeamish about public flauntings of sexuality. (How exactly he squares this belief with his previously-established view that bragging about cunnilingus is an acceptable topic for a press conference remains unclear).

There's a much better reason to be skeptical of the preening movement to fly pride flags at city hall, however, and it's got nothing to do with one's view on sexuality. For what it's worth, I'm gay, and I find the whole thing distasteful, not because the global crusade for LGBT rights isn't important, but because casting the Sochi Olympics as the world's leading front in this struggle displays an appallingly sheltered lack of context and perspective on both queer rights and human rights in general.

Mayors raising the rainbow flag is the latest trendy protest against the much-despised "anti-gay laws" which passed the Russian parliament last summer, criminalizing the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors." No sooner was the ink dry on Putin's signature than gay celebs like George Takei and Stephen Fry began calling for a boycott of the Sochi games in retaliation, and it didn't take long before American gay bars were dumping vodka in the streets, European athletes were brandishing rainbow nail polish, and President Obama was vowing to include a bunch of openly gay sports stars in his country's official delegation.

The implied pretext is that the persecution of homosexuals in Russia is the worst thing the Russian government has ever done, and a unique outlier of homophobic behaviour in an otherwise civilized world.

Neither is remotely true.

A recent piece in the New York Times documenting the plight of gays in Nigeria provides a chilling window into what a genuinely homophobic society looks like. In that country, tough new laws have strengthened the criminal status of homosexuality, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison for a broad range of homosexual activities (though more "lenient" judges may merely prescribe 20 lashes with a leather whip). In the nation's heavily Muslim north, law enforcement has been arresting dozens as part of a renewed crackdown on gayness, with Amnesty International claiming some cops have compiled "a list of suspected gay people" for surveillance.

In Russia, by contrast, homosexuality has been completely legal since 1993. My Lonely Planet guidebook calls attention to Moscow's "active gay and lesbian scene," and that the Moscow Times features "articles about gay and lesbian issues as well as listings of gay and lesbian clubs." Some quick Googling turns up plenty of Russian gay tourism sites boasting lists of the hottest bars, bathhouses, and cruising parks. As many wags snarkily observed, Sochi itself even has a lively gay bar despite the dopey mayor's insistence his city is homosexual-free. Patrons of The Lighthouse, incidentally, are reported to be getting a bit tired of western journalists constantly asking if they feel oppressed.

It's similarly worth noting that Russia's recent ban on homosexual "propaganda," however odious we may find it in practice, was motivated primarily at protecting children from sexually explicit materials, and imposes fines, not jail, as punishment. The much-reported vagueness of the legislation also leaves a lot up to interpretation -- many observers saw it as a mostly symbolic way to curry populist favor in a country where the vast, vast majority still considers homosexuality moral vice (ironically, making the legislation one of the more democratic acts of Putin's Russia) and as the AP noted at the time, "most activists believe that the law will not be widely enforced" even as they remain officially suspicious. Only four have faced charges to date.

To be sure, Russia deserves protest. If I were mayor of a Canadian metropolis, I might be inclined to fly the Ukrainian flag over my city hall to protest the Putin government's brazen efforts to colonize and control that long-suffering Russian neighbour, efforts that have led to the chaotic street violence of today. Or perhaps the flag of the Free Syrian Army, in solidarity with those dying by the thousands opposing the Assad dictatorship that's actively funded, armed, and supported by Moscow. Or perhaps the flag of one of the many dissident opposition groups whose leaders have been beaten or jailed by a regime the NGO Freedom House considers one of the worst in the world when it comes to upholding its citizens' basic right to free expression and an impartial justice system.

A Canadian leader willing to take a public stance on one of those issues would be bold and courageous, but also controversial, provocative, and risky -- basically everything Canada's complacent gay rights slacktivists are not.

No member of the Canadian political class wants to stake a position on Russian democracy or foreign policy simply because such causes are neither safe, easy, or fashionable, nor do they pander to a domestic constituency as powerful and well-heeled as urban gays and their liberal allies. So instead we witness the inflation of Russia's comparatively mild "anti-gay" laws into a much larger crisis than they actually are, and at the expense of a great many issues we'd be doing the Russians (and the foreign victims of Russian policy) a much greater service in caring about.

Fifty years from now, it's easy to imagine a Russia with gay marriage, gay politicians, and even more gay clubs and bars than it has now, simply because that's very obviously the direction their society's been progressing for decades. What remains tremendously uncertain, however, is whether Russia of 2060 will be a society that's any more democratic than it is now, with an improved respect for the freedoms for its citizens, the sovereignty of its neighbours, and the importance of human rights abroad.

2014, the history books will read, was the world's moment to protest. Will Canada's mayors be confident they picked the right cause?

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