August 9, 2012

IconPussy Riot trial isn’t just about Putin

Russian girl punks Pussy Riot have gained a great deal of media coverage following their brave stand against the autocratic Putin regime. But the group are also important because of their explicit support for LGBT rights.

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested following an unannounced Pussy Riot appearance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the city’s main Orthodox church. The group performed a “punk prayer”, that criticised Vladimir Putin: the man who has continuously served as either Russia’s President or Prime Minister since 1999.

With their trial drawing to a close, the three women are now likely to face up to three years in jail for the crime of “hooliganism”: a charge Amnesty International describe as “politically motivated”. The verdict will be announced on Friday 17th August.

Commentators from around the world have praised Pussy Riot for supporting freedom of speech, political transparency and women’s rights. But it should also be noted that the group are outspoken LGBT rights advocates: a brave move even for this feminist direct action group.

LGBT people in Russia currently face significant challenges. A 2005 poll indicated that 43.5% of the country’s population supported the re-criminalisation of “homosexual acts”. Several regions have outlawed the “promotion” of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex rights: for instance, the city of St Petersburg has banned “public action aimed at propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors” in a chilling echo of Section 28.

In Moscow, Pride marches have come under attack from thugs (including the police) for several years. Pride parades have now been banned in the city for the coming century.

It is against this backdrop that Pussy Riot members have explained that the LGBT rights agenda is important to them in interviews and in song:

“Black robe, golden epaulettes /
All parishioners are crawling and bowing /
The ghost of freedom is in heaven /
Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains

The fact that Pussy Riot targeted the Orthodox Church in their most recent protest is also of consequence. They did so to highlight the dangerous extent to which the interests of the Church are intertwined with those of the Russian authorities. This relationship is manifested in part through officially sanctioned sexism and homophobia. It can be seen in homophobic laws backed by the Church, and in tacit support from the authorities for homophobic violence dished out by religious extremists.

Alexei Mukhin, president of political thinktank the Center for Political Information, argues that Pussy Riot “were contracted to stage their recent action in the Christ the Savior Cathedral by the LGBT community”. Mukhin’s assessment is pretty cynical and almost definitely inaccurate, but it’s easy to see how he made the connection.

Many within Russia and elsewhere have argued that the cathedral protest was a step too far: an unnecessary infringement upon religious freedoms by a group keen to gain attention for their wider political battle. It’s also important to remember that plenty of feminists, LGBT people and political activists are religious, and that an attack upon religion can be seen as an attack upon these groups.

But for Pussy Riot, the Orthodox Church as an institution was a viable target, in the same way that the Church of England was a viable target for Outrage! in the 1990s. Both the Russian government and the Church have caused suffering for countless lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, and this must be opposed.

Information on how you can support Pussy Riot can be found at Free Pussy Riot! and Amnesty International.

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Ruth Pearce

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