Come out of the closet if you want to help Russian gays, activists tell John Baird
Further demonstrations planned as pressure mounts on International Olympic Committee and Olympic sponsors
On the heels of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s strong condemnation of Russia’s anti-gay laws, Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and others are calling on him to come out publicly as a gay man.
DiNovo made the comments at the #TOwithRussia solidarity march in Toronto on Aug 3, which was part of an international day of protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws. The event attracted about 400 people who marched from Church and Wellesley streets to the Russian consulate at Church and Bloor streets, where many left messages in chalk at the entrance and rainbow flags draped over the front doors. (See Xtra's video coverage here.)
DiNovo joined Liberal MPP Glen Murray and NDP MP Craig Scott, who both gave passionate speeches demanding action by the Canadian government and the International Olympic Committee.
“Now we need [Baird] to stand up,” DiNovo says. “We have an openly gay foreign minister. We want him to go to Russia, stand on Russian soil and say, ‘I’m gay. Deal with it.’”
And DiNovo is not alone. Roy Mitchell, one of the organizers of the march, sent a letter to Baird imploring him to come out as a proud gay man. Coming out would be inspiring for queer Canadians, Mitchell says, and would have an international impact.
“The one thing that was loud and clear was a call for John to come out as a gay man. It's not secret, and I have no idea why he hasn't yet,” Mitchell wrote to Baird’s press secretary, Rick Roth. Mitchell says Roth did not address Baird’s sexuality in the response.
Mitchell says that while Baird’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, it does. “The message he would send if he came out would save lives here.”
Baird, whose sexuality has been discussed in mainstream media as an open secret, has never actually come out — and he has declined Xtra's repeated requests for an interview.
Last week Baird blasted Russia for its controversial new anti-gay law, calling it hateful and noting it could incite violence.
Meanwhile, following the success of the #TOwithRussia march, organizers formed a new activist group under the same name and vowed to keep making noise about the homophobia and violence sweeping Russia.
Nadine Tkatchevskaia, who moved to Canada from Saint Petersburg in 2001 and is one of the organizers of #TOwithRussia, says Russian activists are asking the international community for help. “There is a large amount of hope but also an understanding that more needs to be done to pressure the Russian government,” she says. “I think actions that are generated through the community are some of the most important forms of solidarity we can show.
“As someone who grew up in Russia and has seen the homophobia firsthand, one of the most important things is to demonstrate to the Russian queer community that they aren't alone in the fight.”
Tkatchevskaia, who didn’t come out until moving to Canada, says she would like to see more Russian Canadians speak up. Unfortunately, she says, homophobia is part of the cultural fabric of Russia, so even those who immigrate to Canada bring those prejudices with them. “I didn't actually know what being out meant when I lived in Russia,” she says. “In the early 2000s, there was virtually no information about queer people, and if anything was indeed published it was negative.”
Mitchell says there has been a groundswell of both anger and support in Canada, especially considering that hundreds of people came out on the Saturday night of a long weekend. “I was surprised by the number of people that attended, but not by their sense of justice,” he says. “I love that.”
Organizers are already planning the next action in order to continue the momentum. Tkatchevskaia wants to see future demonstrations at the Canadian Olympic Committee offices, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and the Olympic sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, VISA and Panasonic.
The group will meet at the 519 Church Street Community Centre on Aug 14 at 7pm for a town-hall meeting to brainstorm ideas. Also, a Facebook group has been created.