Dan Choi was arrested by Russian authorities earlier today along with several dozen other LGBT-rights activists who clashed with both Moscow police and religious/neo-Nazi opponents after attempting to proceed with a peaceful Pride celebration that inevitably morphed into yet another violent protest. These crackdowns against LGBT people have become a trend in Moscow over the past several years, and events earlier today were the culmination of what has already been a very contentious few days within the Russian capital.
Choi has reported that he is okay, despite having undergone what appears to be a far more harrowing and aggressive arrest than he has previously experienced during acts of civil disobedience in the US. He has since been released; however, he mentioned that the Russian citizens who were arrested with him would be detained overnight. Choi remains outside the police station in a show of solidarity with his fellow activists.
Pam Spaulding has been actively covering this story, providing regular updates and a live Twitter feed from Dan Choi. Also, for those interested, UK Gay News hosts the Moscow Pride Blog, providing a play-by-play of ongoing developments.
Earlier this spring, LGBT activists were more confident that today would mark the first legally sanctioned Pride parade in Moscow, after multiple attempts over the last several years were thwarted by the homophobic and corrupt former mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov had been Moscow's mayor since 1992, and was sacked last September by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Activists were hopeful the absence of Luzhkov would increase the likelihood of them obtaining their permit. I, along with other friends more familiar with Russian affairs, spoke to Choi shortly before his planned trip, expressing some concern, given rising levels of violence and intimidation by authorities and anti-gay groups. However, Dan seemed optimistic that it would be better this time around.
During last year's attempt at organizing Moscow Pride, the Russian authorities broke up a group of gay protesters, lead by Russian LGBT activist Nikolay Alekseyev, after Luzhkov refused to give a permit for a parade and ordered security services to clamp down on everyone in the "unlawful" assembly. Alekseyev eventually took his case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that, in a symbolic moment for the Russian LGBT rights movement, unanimously ruled that the Russian Federation had violated three articles in the European Convention for illegally banning previous Moscow Pride assemblies.
However, earlier this month, Moscow officials again rejected an application for a Pride parade, in direct violation of the Strasbourg ruling, by indicating it would pose a significant risk to public disorder. It seems Russian authorities are content to play this annual game in order to discriminate against its LGBT citizens.
On Thursday, Alekseyev and Choi joined other activists on a live, nationally televised interview/debate with Russia 1, the nation's premier, state-owned television channel. Activists, including Alekseyev, attempted to make their case, debating with a major anti-LGBT member of the Russian Duma (parliament), Alexander Hinstein, and other heads of Russian hate groups. Exasperated from the overtly biased and outright offensive behavior of the debate moderator, Vladimir Solovyov, and other anti-LGBT groups present, Alekseyev stormed off the set, followed by other LGBT activists.
Although the interview was aired in Russia's eastern provinces thousands of miles from Moscow, it was reportedly replaced by another, less volatile activist's interview in the capital later that evening.
Another major element of concern for activists has been the opposition from neo-Nazis and other anti-LGBT groups usually donned in black vests, reported to have been waiting to violently clash with gay-activists at Moscow's City Hall. Alekseyev indicated, he "would not be surprised [if this were] a provocation from the authorities to justify their illegal ban on the basis that the security cannot be guaranteed." It is reported that Moscow police have also detained counter-demonstrators after they initiated clashes with the gay-activists.
City officials said they had received dozens of petitions from these religious and social groups asking them not to permit the parade on the grounds that it contradicts traditional Russian morality. However, one can't help but wonder how much of this violent opposition was informally sanctioned by the government officials, as opposed to stemming entirely from isolated, independent efforts by these anti-LGBT groups. These hate groups pose as a convenient cover for the local government's homophobic inaction and unwillingness to defend peaceful demonstrators.
Meanwhile, back in the US there are reports that the telephone switchboard at the Russian Embassy in DC has been swamped over the past 24 hours with calls of support for Moscow Pride and the activists.
I feel this volatile situation is certainly escalating and has the potential to send shock waves throughout Russia; but other friends more familiar with Russian politics feel that the Russian state's stranglehold on the media and control of the narrative around LGBT rights will likely suppress these attempts at progress. Alekseyev is reported to have said on Thursday, prior to his televised appearance, "The next 48 hours will shape the future of Moscow Pride and LGBT community in Russia in general - and I am not joking."
We'll have to see how this story unfolds and how the international community responds; lest we risk repeating this now annual event of brutality towards LGBT people by the Russian government and social/religious hate groups, alike.
Choi has written an open letter to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, which he has agreed to personally deliver, with all of your signatures, to the State Department upon his return to Washington. Presently, the United States government has said nothing about the events unfolding in Russia. We can make a difference here, with your help.
Sign Dan Choi's open letter to Secretary Clinton urging her to speak out against the violence in Moscow at AmericaBlog.
In the meantime, my thoughts and admiration are with Dan Choi and the other brave Russian citizens standing up for their civil rights in the face of such terrible risk of violence.