Last week was a really hard week to get through. Between book banning bills and the Don’t Say Gay stuff in Florida. Texas deciding that affirming care for transgender kids is child abuse. And a student bathroom bill in Alabama. It was rough. Oh, and HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that I’ve written two different pieces about, passed. And it was impossible not to think about what’s going on in Ukraine and Russia.
And then today, the Florida Senate is voting on whether their version of the Don’t Say Gay bill should go to the full Senate for a vote. It’s probably going to pass, too, and the governor will sign it. There’s a group up in Tallahassee lobbying about it. Obviously I wish I could be there, but I can’t. Because of COVID, it still feels too risky. And because typically when people organize things like this, especially at the last minute, they forget to consider accessibility. In this case, it means a bus that is accessible to a wheelchair user. But it could really be the case for any accessibility needs.
Family in Ukraine
It’s hard for me to not doom scroll today with so much going on. I feel like I have to keep up with everything. And I keep reaching over to peek at my phone and check my email for updates. I’m looking for new emails addressed to the family mailing list with news from Ukraine. While there have been many good wishes, there has only been one update from the (distant) cousin who lives there. He’s heading for Poland. He’ll stay near the border. His wife and children will head deeper into Poland. To his sister’s home. Because they expect it will be safer. He signed his email “Glory to Ukrainian warriors and Glory to God.” It gave me chills.
The Russia-and-Ukraine Conflict
As I’ve watched the story about Russia and Ukraine unfold over the last few weeks and as I’ve listened to the talking heads go on about Vladimir Putin and what nefarious plans he might have, I’ve been anxious. Unsettled. I certainly wasn’t alive in 1939. But I keep thinking of the way appeasement seems to be a strategy used with dictators. In fact, as I listened, and as I read more and more, I couldn’t help but think about the way Hitler invaded Poland and yet the decision was made to allow Poland to fall. I suppose the logic was that he might actually stop after that, instead of continuing on a quest for domination. But the signs were there. All the warnings were there. It’s not like we hadn’t seen tremendous inflation, economic suffering and a leader who has seen the way the influence of his country has declined.
I think Rachel Maddow explained things quite well in this case. She talks about how Russia occupies the largest amount of land on the planet and the rich history of innovation and cultural accomplishment. And the contrast between that and the current economic conditions, where the Russian economy is reliant almost entirely on their oil and gas industries. But they can’t even really advance there without reaching out to someone else for the innovation and technology they need.
What we Have to Cope With
At this point, how could anyone not be feeling stressed out about things? On social media I see a lot of discussion among my Gen X peers, much of it in the form of dark humor. We’ve been talking about our memories of growing up doing duck-and-cover drills and teachers telling us how far down our locations were on the hit list of nuclear targets for the USSR.
The 1980s was the first time I thought about Russian hit lists. When I grew up wondering if my hometown was on one of them. Now I’m thinking about them again.
Their hit lists start with two groups really, right? People who already have a limited voice, and limited rights, and the people who have the power to tell you about what’s happening. It makes a lot of sense that they would start with these groups. Minorities and journalists. Again, I don’t need to have been alive in 1939 for that to sound familiar.
Russia Vs. Queer People
We’ve known about how Russia has targeted queer Russians for a long time. Eight years ago, I can remember a lot of talk not just in the LGBTQ media, but in mainstream media leading up to the Sochi Olympic games. Although Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, at a time when there were some major advances in LGBTQ rights across the globe, the Russians now seemed to be going in reverse.
The influence of the Russian Orthodox church is important in Russia, and the government wants to placate the church as much as they can… And that means squeezing out every possible way of making it difficult to be LGBTQ+ without making it illegal. The Russians can’t do that even if they want to, even if the church wants to, because they’re a member of the human rights organization the Council of Europe. That hasn’t stopped them from:
-passing strict so-called “anti-propaganda” laws
-having no protections in place at all (marriage or civil union) for same sex couples
-unofficially upholding a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military.
Nor does it include Chechnya, where things are even worse. There, there have been abductions, torture, imprisonment and so-called shame killings; or extrajudicial executions of queer people.
And then, over the weekend, stories about Russian soldiers using Tinder to hook up with Ukrainian women began to pop up. It should be no surprise then, that the same kinds of stories began to pop up about soldiers using Grindr and looking for hookups that way, too.
Ukraine Vs. Queer People (A Lesser Evil)
It’s not like things are tremendously better for queer people in Ukraine. At least not legally. They don’t have anything like Russia’s act “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” which prohibits the distribution among minors of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.” This also includes anything that might raise interest in same sex relationships, “causes” minors to form these relationships, or presents same sex relationships as equal in value to opposite sex relationships.
Same sex marriage is constitutionally banned in Ukraine and there are no civil unions there, either. Same sex couples are also prohibited from adopting. (And there’s no second parent adoption.) Although single people can adopt regardless of sexual orientation. Being queer won’t automatically get you out of compulsory military service, but many queer men try and avoid it because of prevailing attitudes in the military. There are some employment- and hate-crimes-protections. Fascinatingly, in Ukraine, men who have sex with men are allowed to donate blood. (This is one place the US really needs to catch up on. The FDA’s rules against that are left over from the height of the AIDS epidemic some twenty-five years ago.)
LGBTQ Ukranians have fought pretty hard to be able to celebrate Pride, too. Their first Pride parade was held in 2003. But since then there have been many, many issues with being able to make sure that participants would be safe during the celebrations. At one Pride celebration in Kyiv, there were about three times as many police and soldiers trying to protect marchers as there were actual marchers. It’s getting better though. With marchers now outnumbering security forces in Kyiv. And with celebrations spreading to places like Odessa (in the northwestern part of the country) and Kharikiv (in the northeastern part of the country.)
The Eastern Orthodox Church has a pretty strong influence, and they’re not big fans of queer people anymore than the Russian Orthodox church is.
And so here we are. The Russians are rolling into Ukraine. People there undoubtedly know about the kill lists. Sphere (an LGBTQ+ group in Kharkiv) has posted on Facebook “escalation of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine currently has an unprecedented impact on vulnerable groups, including the LGBT+ community.” And yet I see bravery and support. Tbilisi Pride, in Georgia has come out in support of Ukraine. The Russians were at war with Georgia a little more than a decade ago, and in spite of that, here are the Georgians proclaiming that they stand with the people of Ukraine.
Kyiv Pride has thrown some shade directly at Vladimir Putin, accusing him of wanting to draw them back into the past and reminding us that Ukraine is a country that has chosen values of “human rights, humanity, life and personality.” My favorite part of their statement was that “Putin will break all his teeth trying to bite us.”
The Bravery of Ukraine (and Russia)
As I’ve come to embrace my identity as a writer, bravery has been on my mind a lot lately. Bravery is required in order to take risks, to submit pieces for publication or to read my work at open mic events. Bravery is something I’ve had to find as I’ve learned how to manage life as a disabled person. Mind, bravery is part of survival as a vulnerable or marginalized person. But I can’t imagine the bravery that’s required to face a situation like what’s going on in Ukraine at all, not to mention the extra layer of bravery that must be required to face it as a queer person.
It’s also important to note that thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting against their own country’s invasion of Ukraine. That takes real courage, considering Putin’s reputation for violent retaliation against political dissidents.
In spite of his creepiness, (cw: this article discusses sex crimes,) Gandhi did have a point when he said that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. And right now, that includes queer people. I can sit here in awe of the bravery demonstrated by Ukrainian queers. in admiration of the support given to them by other groups but I stop looking at the big neon warning sign flashing behind the Ukranian LGBTQ groups about the threat posed to them by Russia and Putin’s invading forces.
It’s already a challenge for queer Ukranians to speak up because of the bias that’s present in their country. They’re facing down an invading force that’s got an even stronger bias against them. One that’s basically told them they’re being targeted. But they’re standing up anyway. That chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” takes on a portentious tone right now.
I’m so glad they’re not remaining silent or shrinking back as they face down the Russians. I’m so glad that we’re hearing their voices. We need to keep listening to them. We need to keep listening for them. Those voices are a warning. If they start to fade, if we stop hearing them, it’s too late–something terrible has already happened. Those voices are exactly the kind of thing that Lee Hays and Pete Seeger were talking about in “The Hammer Song”
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land
I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.