On April 8 the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, visited Amsterdam. Thousands of people used the opportunity to show their dismay with the Russian bill against homosexual “propaganda” among minors and the general clampdown of gay rights in Russia.
Florence had been talking about her broken relationship for an hour before she mentioned, reluctantly, that her ex was female. She had nothing to fear from her audience, which happened to be all-gay. “I’m not open about my homosexuality,” Florence explained.
On January 13 hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris to show their discontent with the government’s plans to give gay couples in France the right to marry and adopt children. A remarkable achievement in a country where sexual escapades by the former IMF director Strauss-Kahn and filmmaker Polanski pass as “gallantry”. Yet homosexuality seems to be a bit of a taboo in France – and not just among the catholics and muslims that marched against gay marriage.
Florence is a well-educated, fifty-something woman from Lyon. She has been in relationships with women for almost three decades. Her family is totally at ease with it. But Florence herself is not: she’s not out at work and prides herself on not having many gay friends. “I’m always afraid of what other people might think,” she explains. She reminds me of Viviane, another fifty-something lesbian who is living a closeted life in Paris. At work Viviane told she is a relationship with a “monsieur” – a lie she sustained with difficulty when her partner for years met a tragic end. Another friend, Alain, often says that he would like the French to be more tolerant towards homosexuality and in favor of marriage equality. Yet during the last elections he, a gay man himself, voted for the UMP, the centre-right party that is vehemently against gay marriage.
A recent issue of a French studies journal argues that the republican universalism of the country has prevented gay citizens from asserting their difference and, eventually, rights. I’ve met many French, gay and straight, who have absolutely no issue with homosexuality – but many seem to belong to the younger generations. If the Florences and Alains of France keep thinking they have a reason to be ashamed about their homosexuality, convincing opponents that gay couples deserve the same rights as straight ones might be a challenge.
It was stifling hot in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva last Friday. A group of Iranian dissidents was preparing a sit-in for the 477th day in a row. Tourists were taking photographs of the flags decorating the entrance of the world’s leading organization for human rights. A friend and I unrolled a banner, put on a colorful balaclava and armed us with yarn and needles.
It was a few hours before three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot would be sentenced for their “punk prayer” against Putin in a church in Moscow. The day before, a fellow knitter has posted a call for action on Facebook. Knitting a balaclava, part of the band’s trademark outfit, in front of the UN would be the proper way to show our outrage.
“Imprisonment for a subversive performance?” a Spanish gentleman asked us. “Ridiculous.” A tourist from China wanted to know if I was related to one of the band’s members. He was just taking a picture when three policemen approached. “Do you have a permit for this manifestation? In Switzerland, if two people hold a banner, you need a permit. Those are the rules.” Could we apply for one at the spot? The policemen looked as if I swallowed a balaclava. We should have applied months in advance! “There’s a philosophical conflict between liberty and equality,” a Russian scientist from CERN tuned in. “Let me tell you something about nineteenth-century Russia.” Either the idea of a history lecture or my fishnet stockings softened the policemen. “We won’t fine you just now. But you can’t show your banner or wear your balaclava. Those are the rules.” Amazingly, we didn’t need a permit to knit. The Iranian protesters offered us chairs. “I wanted to bring flags,” an employee of an international Trade Union said. “But our Russian members are all pro-Putin.” A Russian MD nodded. “You can’t have an important position in Russia and be against Putin.” His supporters had already spotted our Facebook event page and were posting vulgarities.
The Pussy Riot members are sentenced to two years in prison. I will finish that balaclava and wear it.