by Stephania Kulaeva
from the magazine of ILGA-Europe Destination>>EQUALITY autumn 2016
I met Arthur (the name is changed) when he was 19 – and he was glowing with his bright smile, white shirt, blue-black hair and a beautiful dark face. Arthur introduced me to his Roma family – kind parents, beautiful sisters, and nephews. They lived together – united, joyful, and poor.
The family observed ‘Roma traditions’ – they celebrated all necessary holidays, women wore long skirts, men knew a great deal about horses, and they kept cattle. Arthur stood out somehow in this environment: he eagerly helped his mother at home, could not eat the dishes with the meat of slaughtered household cattle in them, and once set free a hedgehog that had been caught in the forest for a traditional gypsy meal. His sensitivity and compassion showed also in his acknowledgement of injustice in the human society, exclusion of the gypsy community from the life of his hometown, and discrimination. I do not know exactly when he realised that within his own community – within this excluded and discriminated against minority – he was again doomed to experience misunderstanding and rejection because of his sexual orientation. Arthur moved to a big city, got in touch with other people, but within LGBTI communities he still remained unusual – other by appearance, other by origin, other by his habits and values. Arthur always remained a minority within a minority: when he sought help from parents – who loved him fully, but could not step over the enormous pressure of traditions that replaced in their environment all other regulations; and when he tried to integrate into the life of the Russian capital, where, as he confessed with bitterness, his appearance was seen as a sexual commodity, where he was exploited and not recognised as a person.
A painful split between two hardly-compatible identities is not rare; significant others around a gay Roma or a gay Jew are often not ready to accept this person fully, everyone pulls in their own direction, carrying out, as they think, their best intentions.
Another young man I’ve known since his childhood chose to break with his Roma family, to reject them, who were so harsh in not accepting his sexual orientation, to walk out into another world, to try to even forget his native language. It is not easy at all, and if at every step in a pale-faced country your own face raises a question – who are you? – it becomes even more painful.
The most progressive people nowadays are more comfortable in accepting sexual orientation and gender identity diversity rather than someone’s loyalty to their origins. It is true not only of the LGBTI community; in general, people often do not acknowledge that it is problematic to remain committed to the traditions of one’s community while openly declaring otherness in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Traditional (sometimes religious, sometimes – not) mindset is seen as backward and harmful, an enemy of freedom of choice, progress and culture. But what constitutes freedom of choice, and what counts as culture? I have had heated debates with people who condemned Roma activists for wearing traditional long skirts. “How can they talk about human rights and women’s rights, and when it comes to themselves wear these terrible outdated clothes?” exclaimed ladies in skirt suits – in my opinion, the most uncomfortable and impractical attire, which, however, is considered not just acceptable, but the only correct look at “business” meetings.
I think a lot more courage in defending one’s choices, culture and identity is required for coming to such a meeting in a long skirt than following the ‘business dress code’. Often we, human rights defenders, are convinced in our righteousness as much as people with a “traditional mindset”, and also – if not more – intolerant.
Once our organisation, the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial”, hosted a two-day roundtable on the problems of compact Roma settlements, which gathered respectable community leaders. On the first day, we discussed their pressing concerns – legalisation of construction, roads, water, electricity. Before dinner, I warned everyone: tomorrow we will talk about discrimination against LGBTI in closed communities, if anyone does not approve of this theme – feel free to not attend, but those who join are asked to abstain from insults or condemnation.
Anxious, we arrived to the office for the second meeting day, fearing that there would be too few participants. However, to our delight, all the participants were already seated, looking friendly and suited up. The round table went great – experts shared their input, a discussion ensued, the elders listened to everything calmly and left. After the event, I exchanged impressions with one of the participants – an openly gay Roma. I was surprised that the “barons” accepted the matter so calmly and even showed a clear interest, not hiding it from us or from each other. “What do you think,” said Mikhail. “If you are a baron of a large camp, how could you not know what happens.” Life experience, direct knowledge and an understanding that it is necessary to accept people in their diversity and to find ways to peaceful co-existence, helped these “barons” to establish themselves as a lot more tolerant, wise and inquisitive than some of the recognised human rights defenders. I wish they could enjoy such acceptance and understanding themselves – with their behaviors, appearances, lifestyles, culture and choices in life trajectories, without any “normative” models imposed on them.
People combatting discrimination should remember that we are dealing with a wide range of issues, from the right to same-sex family to the right to wear a hijab. At times these rights are seen as mutually contradictory, but that’s only at first sight. In fact, everything is simple: everyone – regardless of their origin, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity – should have access to all rights just like all other people, near and far. The current European legislation has come close to documenting this principle (“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in its laws. But one thing in which this principle is still very far away not only from the implementation in practice (in practice, even Europe has a lot of problems with discrimination), but also from legal framework: people are born far from equal in their rights as they are born with different citizenships. Citizenship of any of the EU States provides many more rights – to a choice of identity, to freedom of movement, and to social security – than citizenship in a country in the southern or eastern parts of the world. This injustice is also to be addressed – children do not choose their citizenship.