Russian Roulette

1 11 2017

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Shortly after the new administration took over our country, and after I marched on Washington DC, I attended a Women in Business conference. It’s an annual event that is inspiring and empowering, and the overnight format really allows you to have some deeper conversations that really help you to connect with other women. After spending a late night in the Platt 99 bar with Cindy Solomon buying rounds of drinks, I failed to sleep in, and stumbled downstairs to get breakfast.

In the hotel restaurant, I was seated at a two-top by myself, which I was perfectly content with, seeing as how my introverted self hadn’t had a moment alone in 24 hours (awake, that is). I ordered myself a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, then proceeded to go circumnavigate the buffet like a shark, quickly honing in on the roasted potatoes and bell peppers. With a perfect balance of indulgence and restraint, I sat back down to enjoy my plate of food, when I heard another woman call my name.

 

“Kelly!” her heavy Russian accent called out, “Would you like to join us?” I smiled and obliged, moving my things to her nearby table. The invitation came from a woman I had met at dinner the night before. She works as an executive assistant in another department and the same large institution I work for, and I learned all about her recent move from rural Indiana. She introduced me to a young woman, also Russian, also an executive assistant for a large company. Both were in a very relaxed state of exhaustion, and the younger woman was enjoying a bloody Mary with her meal.

 

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Over the course of our breakfast, they were reminiscing about some of their Russian cultural heritage, excited to share with an outsider like me who is interested in culture. “Russian woman,” my colleague shared, “NEVER go outside without full face and hair done. It would be tragedy!” They both laughed. “Oh?” I questioned, “That’s actually a lot like how Southern women used to be in the U.S.! My aunt in Texas talked about how you wouldn’t even step outside to grab the newspaper without full makeup on.”

The conversation went on to share about how the younger woman’s American husband struggled to understand Russian habits. When they visited Russia, he innocently smiled and said hello to everyone they passed, while the local people glared back at him like he was an insane asylum escapee to be weary of. I shared my own observations about how people in cold climates tend to walk faster and smile less, because they are focusing on getting someplace above freezing, whereas southerners lollygag and pause for sweet conversations in the shade to prevent the inevitable perspiration. “But once you KNOW someone in Russia,” the younger woman continued, “they will welcome you with open arms, and they will feed you endless foods and drinks, and be incredibly friendly to you!” They both laughed and nodded in agreement, and insisted, “You really MUST come visit Russia!”

Russland, Moskau, Basiliuskathedrale

I smiled, as the thought perforated my mind. I do SO love getting invitations from people to visit a foreign country as a friend instead of as a tourist. But then reality flashed onto my frontal lobe, like a jolt of lightening. I hesitated how to delicately share the truth. “I’d love to see Russia someday, but it’s not very safe for me right now.” I hoped they would have a sudden realization and then nod in agreement and let it go. Instead, I got two very puzzled looks back.

 

_96558973_gayrusafp1may13I swallowed, realizing that I would have to spell it out. “Well, it’s illegal to be gay in Russia. I could be arrested and jailed if I go there.” Surely, now, they would feel sheepish about their ignorance and say something mildly apologetic before switching the subject, right?

 

“No, that’s not true,” one of them said confidently. “You heard some lies.”

olympics_are_gay_propaganda_2053775“Um, no, it’s the law in Russia. It was passed just before they hosted the 2014 Olympics. It was a really big deal because numerous athletes from other countries ended up not going to compete because they feared for their safety.”

“No, that is fake news. You heard a bad story from not good source.”

fake-news_bigNow I was a little annoyed at their insistence that what I was telling them was not factual. “No, it was not just one story. Every major news source reported the same thing. There are video clips of Russian officials talking about the new laws and the implications for LGBT Russians and visitors.”

“Really? It must have been a bad translation. Sometimes the American TV translates one things and the Russian says something totally different. In any case, you would be fine in Russia. Nobody cares.”

Okay, now I was beyond annoyed, but also curious. How could these two Russian expats, one in her 50s, one in her 20s, both completely deny a basic fact that is LAW in Russia?

130919083221-putin-protest-exlarge-169“That’s great that most people you know don’t care if someone is gay, but the fact is that the government has passed a law making it punishable to exhibit non-traditional behavior in front of minors, and I don’t really want to spend my money someplace that is so clearly against people like me. Hopefully someday things will change. I’d love to visit Russia before I die.”

Russia Gay Activists

Of courses, if I were to travel to Chechnya today, I can be caned and even punished by death for being gay. Today hundreds of gay men are being held at a secret prison- a la concentration camp- in Argun, where they are beaten and tortured. And if I exhibit any ‘gay propaganda’ or otherwise pro-gay behavior that happens to be in front of a minor, I can be arrested anywhere in Russia.  So, theoretically, simply talking about my wife in public can be grounds for my arrest, because it promotes “non-traditional” lifestyle. 

At this, they finally shrugged their shoulders and conceded.

So, with all the recent news about Russian influence on the U.S. election, I cannot help but wonder, is this what our future looks like? Will our media eventually become a watered down reflection of Putin-esque autocracy? Will Americans in the future insist that “there is no Muslim ban,” because that’s what the leader tells them, and thus that’s what they believe?

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The unwavering loyalty of these women to an ‘alternate fact’ that they had no proof of, but is easily dis-proven, terrifies me. I see similar behavior in some of my fellow Americans. The leader says X, so X it must be! We do not question the leader! Right?

 

 

Or do we? Do we resist? Do we fight for the media? For independent journalism? The choice is clear for me. I like truth. I hope you like truth too. Regardless of whether the truth supports my values or not, I still don’t want to live a life of intention ignorance.

(If you’re curious about the history and evolution on Russia’s stance on gay rights, here’s a great article).

LGBT2

 

 

 

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