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What a Difference an Hour Makes

Team GT visit Stockholm Pride... just an hour flight from Russia and a very different world.

If you imagine the world as one giant street, Stockholm in Sweden and Saint Petersburg in Russia live practically two doors down from one another. However, a flight that takes just over an hour quite strikingly highlights two very different approaches to LGBT issues and equality.

Earlier this month, Team GT headed to Stockholm Pride and witnessed four days of massive celebrations, where it wasn’t simply the local LGBT community who got involved but almost everyone in the whole city - including thousands of visitors from around Sweden and the entire world. Police cars, government buildings, shops, restaurants and bars (both gay and straight) flew the rainbow flag in a show of equality and solidarity.

While ABBA legend Agnetha Faltskog was graciously accepting her flowers on the Pride stage, lapping up the attention from adoring fans (for about the 15th time this year), the Deputy General Director of the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (RTR), Dmitri Kisilev, was telling his nation that gay people “Should be banned from donating blood, sperm,” adding that he thinks, “Their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life.” Nice guy. We’re not sure which is worse, his statements or the fact the crowd were so chillingly eager to applaud such vicious sentiments.

The news of Russia’s anti-LGBT laws has spread across the globe, with peaceful demonstrations against the new regime recently held in London and Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Sweden has shown support for LGBT equality across the world both officially and unofficially. While painting the zebra crossing outside the Russian Embassy in Stockholm from white to rainbow colours was certainly an unofficial act of protest, it’s an eye-catching one with imagery that flew around global news outlets and social media networks.

Even more prominent was Stockholm Pride’s Twitter campaign #GoWest, which invited the Russian LGBT community to travel to Stockholm to join their celebration, the first Pride around the world to do so. It also allowed individuals to send out tweets of support that are automatically translated into Russian. The campaign was a success and we came across a number of Russians who were not only thankful for Stockholm Pride’s open invitation, but concerned about the increasingly hostile country they were returning to.

The morning after the main Stockholm Pride festivities, a breakfast show on one of Sweden’s national television stations devoted an entire section of its programme to the Mr Gay Sweden Contest. As Russia’s anti-LGBT laws make it illegal to ‘promote’ homosexuality anywhere around children, this daytime slice of “homosexual propaganda” could have seen its producers arrested and hauled down to the station by the Politsiya if this studio was in Saint Petersburg. Yet one of the most heartwarming moments during Stockholm’s Pride parade included scores of children marching proudly with their gay parents, and straight parents with their gay children, to some of the biggest cheers of the entire weekend. Why Swedish children aren't affected negatively by homosexuality but Russian children are has yet to be established by modern science...

Sweden has been one of the most progressive countries on LGBT rights, legalising homosexuality in 1944 and also becoming the first country in the world to allow transsexuals to legally change their sex in 1972, providing free hormone therapy. Seeing its capital city embracing equality and inclusion so much provides a stark contrast to those images of LGBT rights protesters in Russia, often peaceful ones, being physically abused by or detained by Russian law enforcers.

Russia’s somewhat twisted take on 'traditional values' could potentially lose the nation a lot of sway and validity with the countries on this side of the globe the longer it continues with this new regime, especially with President Barack Obama publicly denouncing Putin for it. Whatever your thoughts on Obama or the US, it can’t be denied that this is a powerful endorsement of the international fight for equality. Sadly, a global force like Russia implementing such a law also gives validation to other countries with similar prejudiced ideals.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, what now? What can we do as a community to support those who don’t have the freedoms that many of us take for granted? A boycott of the Olympics punishes athletes around the world who have trained so hard to represent their country. A ban on Russia taking part in their own Olympics punishes their athletes; regular people who have nothing to do with the new laws. There are surely better ways of protesting than gay bars around the world pouring vodka, that isn’t even made in Russia, down the drain. While it gains attention briefly, neither the Russian government or anyone persecuted for their sexuality could give a stuff whether you’re drinking Russian vodka or not.

Maybe the best course of action is to take a leaf out of Stockholm’s book. To vocally and visually dedicate all future Pride’s around the world not just to fighting for tolerance and equality in Russia, but to the 70+ countries where it’s still illegal to be gay. Regimes that punish minorities only happen or get stronger if we, the people, allow them to. Constant images of solidarity for LGBT individuals around the world and protests against the intolerance they are subjected to earns more attention the more it happens. Increasing the number of people singing from the same hymn sheet creates a noise that eventually cannot be silenced by international ears that don’t want to hear it.

Truly effective change comes from strategic action, not knee-jerk reaction. And how ironic is it that Putin could be the one who actually does more for the promotion of homosexuality than any of his rainbow flag-waving citizens ever could.

Click here to see more from Stockholm Pride 2013. To purchase the T-shirts in the photograph, click here.

Words: Lee Dalloway (@Leeroydalvin)

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