Society

The Courage Required To Come Out In Putin's Russia

As France becomes the 14th country to allow same-sex marriage, Le Monde looks at one of the bleaker corners for gay rights in 2013.

Anton Krasovky has broken a taboo amongst Russia's media elite.
Anton Krasovky has broken a taboo amongst Russia's media elite.
Piotr Smolar

MOSCOW - Journalist Anton Krasovsky has committed a significant act in the small world of Moscow’s elite – he revealed he was gay.

It was January 25, on Kontr TV – a Kremlin-backed Internet and cable television network he helped to launch. The debate focused on the latest initiative of the Kremlin: the adoption by Parliament of a law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality among minors, punishable by fines of up to 12,000 euros. Such measures already exist in rural cities. But ever since its decriminalization in 1993, the Russian government hadn’t organized such an attack on homosexuality – considered by many Russians as a deviancy. A sad legacy of Soviet times.

Aged 37, Krasovsky has frequented the corridors of power for long enough to be immune to sentimentality. That evening, during a show, he dropped a bombshell. He announced that not only was he gay, he was also as human as President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev and the members of Parliament. He was fired on the spot. Videos of him were deleted from the Kontr TV website and YouTube.

A June 2012 demonstration in support of LGBT rights in Moscow (Somiz)

"Russia is a philosophical black hole, nothing is important – and neither is my action," he says. But then why come out so publicly? Because, he says, of the worrying turn the country is taking since the return of Putin to the Kremlin in May 2012.

The multiplication of repressive laws and the development of a populist state, based on the promotion of patriotism, the Orthodox Church and anti-Americanism ended up dissolving the layer of cynicism that was protecting the journalist. This has a name: it is conscience.

"Everything is leading us to a pit where I do not want to fall,” says Krasovsky. “Maybe I'll end up there like the rest of the country. But I do not want my name associated with the process. I fight for human rights, not for gays. The time has come to take risks for our rights without waiting for someone to serve them on a fucking platter. Martin Luther King, he was killed!”

Krasovsky was the editor of a popular show for the NTV channel, the Kremlin's favorite weapon to discredit the opposition. In autumn 2011, the man who swears like a sailor when his thoughts are racing, became the pilot of a funny project: the entry into politics, at the request of the Kremlin, of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. "An excellent manager for peacetime, but not a new Yeltsin emerging from all this mud," says Krasovsky.

Today, Krasovsky believes that his career prospects are shot in Russia. He is planning to go abroad for a few months, "in Italy or the United States," to write a book. "It will be about life in the 1990s, the fears, a hero who lies to himself, gays, business and politics.”

Oddly enough, Krasovsky is a mix of courage and denial. He believes that "there is no real homophobia in Russia" and that for a gay Russian to be in the closet has deep-rooted “psychological reasons.”

“Homosexuals should be liquidated”

In reality, the situation is much starker. Being gay in Moscow and St. Petersburg often forces concealment strategies. No physical contact whatsoever in public. Meeting places are discreet. In October, 20 masked gunmen stormed into a club in Moscow, the 7FreeDays. Several people were injured, including three seriously. No politician, or famous singer or actor has ever come out as a homosexual.

According to a survey published in March, Russian pollster Levada, 50% of Russians said they felt “irritated and disgusted” by gays and lesbians and 18% said they felt “a sense of alertness.” For more than one out of three Russians, 34%, homosexuality is “an illness that should be treated,” 23% believe it is “the result of a bad education,” while 5% say homosexuals should be “liquidated.”

In rural regions, the situation is much worse, and homophobia is rampant. According to Igor Kotchetkov, president of the Vykhod (Coming Out) organization in St. Petersburg, the law against homosexual propaganda, passed in January, is part of a broader framework, a repressive road that the Kremlin has embarked on for a year now. "The government panders to its less-educated, most conservative constituents, those who grew up during the Soviet era, lost a lot after the Perestroika and is looking for someone to blame – immigrants or gays.”

According to Kotchetkov, it is unimaginable in rural Russia for homosexuals to live together as a couple. You have to register at your parents address. "If you're gay, it is impossible to get a job in education or public services." In addition, there is violence. "Each year we do an Internet survey. Up to 3000 people participate, of which 30% say they have been the victims of a physical assault."

One of the veterans of the gay cause is at an unknown address – for security reasons – in an apartment north of Moscow. These are the offices of Kvir, Russia’s first magazine for the gay community, founded in 2003. Vladimir Voloshin, 46, is the editor in chief and only full-time employee.

Kvir recently decided to stop its printed version to focus on the Internet. In Kazan, the newsstands selling the magazine were told they would be being burnt down. In St. Petersburg, the distribution agreement was broken. Fortunately, Internet browsing happens in the privacy of one’s home, so the readership is much higher than with the printed version. "Many people were afraid to buy the magazine at their newsstand, admits Voloshin. “Homophobia – that existed in everyday life – is now state-sponsored. The new laws are immoral and discriminating," he adds.

Voloshin’s parents still live in Uzbekistan, where he was born. He never told them where he worked. "Most gays refuse to come out, because it’s dangerous. We risk losing those close to us," he says.

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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