June 16, 2014
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
Police raided a gay sauna. The police's actions — and the following media storm – were violent in more ways than one.
Every LGBTQ+ person has experienced the fear of kissing their partner on the street. Many of us have been beaten, insulted or given reproachful looks for doing so, as if a show of affection was a perverse act.
Prejudices have forced LGBTQ+ people to the construct social spaces hidden from the public eye: nightclubs, cafes, saunas and others. They are places designed so that those who pretend to be heterosexual in their day-to-day life can let themselves be free and meet their equals.
In 1990, homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organization list of mental illnesses. To commemorate this, May 17 is the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. So what happened in Bolivia in the city of El Alto, just a few days before that date, hits particularly hard.
On May 8, police officers entered a gay sauna under the excuse of having received informal complaints. They mistreated the clients of the place to the point of taking pictures of them without respect for their privacy. As a result of the raid, three employees were arrested, accused of pornography and crimes against public health. The accusation presented to the prosecutor has clear overtones of homophobia and morbid interest.
Instead of explaining why the charges would be relevant, they only point out the sexual orientation of those involved, emphasizing it in practically every line. It seems that more than clarifying the facts, the report seeks to reproach those involved for their sexual orientation.
An accusation of this nature shows that there was a degree of homophobia installed in those who carried out the raid. Therefore, the entire process can lose objectivity and be tinged with prejudice. The defendants were in police cells for up to five days after the events and managed to get out in a temporary freedom while the investigation takes place.
The accusation has clear overtones of homophobia and morbid interest.
Although this case is far from being over, it allows us to read some of the social levels of institutional and cultural homophobia in Bolivia.
The first is clearly the police actions themselves, accompanied by the text of the accusation, the initial reaction of the Prosecutor's Office and the current criminal process.
A second level, less obvious, is present in the way the news is transmitted by the media. In many cases, it revictimizes those involved. Very popular Bolivian media programs did not hesitate to headline the event as a "men's brothel" and even circulated some photographs taken by the police at the scene. They never asked themselves how to handle the news of a clear violation of the human rights of a vulnerable group.
Parade in El Alto, Bolivia
A third level of violence, much less evident, is in the news readers. People who share their morbid curiosity with laughter and insults. People who defend the police and criticize the existence of a gay sauna because they are unwilling to normalize homosexuality. People who, from the privilege of never having been discriminated against for their sexual orientation, sit down to judge others. People who complain that they don't have a collective that defends them, without stopping to think that the collective that defends them is the same patriarchal system that, on this occasion, embodies the policemen who raided the sauna that day.
Sometimes we think that a homophobe is just someone who hits a homosexual in the street or calls them insulting words. Homophobia is also the one getting angry seeing a gay kiss in a Marvel movie and talking about "forced inclusion".
So is the person who sits calls gay saunas "perverted" but is completely OK when it comes to paying a sex worker for her services.
Homophobia is also the priest who in his homily tells his audience: "I am a martyr because society crucifies me for opposing homosexuals."
Homophobia is also someone who thinks that the accused men have received what they deserve for being in such a place. Or the mother who prays every day that her son doesn't come out gay. Homophobia is also laughing at the homosexuals who "deserve to be beaten".
I ask you to think, then, if you want to continue being part of this chain of silent violence that hurts, that silences, that kills.
Police raided a gay sauna. The police's actions — and the following media storm – were violent in more ways than one.
As NATO leaders meet in Madrid, Finland and Sweden look much closer to joining the alliance after Turkey dropped its objections to their membership. It's yet another momentous change underway since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.