Russia's Anti-Gay Laws Are Turning Neighbors Into Enemies in NYC

Queer Nation, the group behind many publicity campaigns challenging Russia’s anti-gay laws, made another splash at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night in New York.

While most protest groups gather at the UN to make their issues heard during the General Assembly, Queer Nation targeted the celebrities and wealthy guests flocking to a night of upscale revelry.

Ann Northrop, organizer for Queer Nation NY, explained why she focused on the Opera:

"We’re here at the opening night gala, to demand that the Met dedicate their Russian extravaganza to the LGBT community in Russia that’s currently being outlawed and attacked viciously and physically."

Northrop claims the Met's position of staying silent on the issue is unacceptable. By turning a blind eye to those suffering in Russia, she says they've bolstered Putin’s supporters and ignored the painful irony of the selected Opera’s origins:

"The Met is celebrating Putin’s friends, Anna Netrbko and Gergiev the conductor, who will be performing an Opera by a famously oppressed gay Russian: Tchaikovsky. This is a very sad moment to be celebrating Russian culture."

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, chose to open the season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s famous "Eugene Onegin," a pioneering Russian opera starring the famous soprano Anna Netrebko and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Gelb presented the night as a gift to New Yorkers, setting up massive outdoor video screens to broadcast the performance to audiences standing outside Lincoln Center and Times Square.

But the protests and increased publicity against Putin’s law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" — as well as an online petition calling for the Met to dedicate its opening night to supporting LGBT communities in Russia — put pressure on Gelb to make a statement.

Openly criticizing Russia, however, would jeopardize Gelb’s relationship with the foreign performers, Gergiev and Netrebko, who were both open advocates for Putin in his last election. 

Gelb instead settled on including a statement in his program book, which decried the "tyranny of Russia’s new anti-gay laws," while publicly stating that it would be inappropriate for the Met to dedicate a particular performance to any particular social or political cause.

As the NYPD presence grew to manage the chanting protesters, arriving opera guests were confronted with an unlikely moral quandary. Most felt they were supporting the arts, and even the gay community via the event. Others recognized that the partnership with Russian performers was an opportunity to demonstrate disdain for Russia's horrifically discriminatory and violent laws. 

The protesters continued to chant, weave their large banners between police officers and guests while handing out informational fliers. Northrop says her group will continue to raise awareness at every venue they can:

"We’ve got a lot of territory to cover. We’re going after all the advertisers of the Sochi Olympics, the major companies doing business in Russia, we’re certainly going after Russian officials directly, we’re just trying to publicize the issue around the world. We think we’ve been quite successful with that."

Queer Nation’s highly publicized "Vodka Dump" campaign certainly went a long way to raise awareness of Russian abuses in the public sphere. But a gala event at the Metropolitan Opera seemed like a misdirected target to some.

Most of the well-dressed guests smiled glibly at the group, while taking pictures on their smartphones, before turning their backs and heading inside to enjoy the show. Flutters of conversations about the protest could be heard among some people, though they were soon drowned out by the swell of a full Orchestra greeting arriving invitees.

Eventually, the congested sidewalk gave the NYPD all the excuse it needed to lock the group behind steel barricades, citing traffic concerns and the arriving private limousines of celebrities and guests alike. The group kept their chants up, peacefully pleading with Opera enthusiasts to consider the hypocrisy they were supporting. 

Gerard Corsini, a practicing attorney, has been supporting social justice causes for most of his career. He was attending the Met's opening night as a guest, but agreed with Queer Nation’s concerns, saying "Putin doesn’t care about the Met, he uses LGBT issues as a catalyst for oppression. Over here, we have a right to stand. We have the right to stand up for those who can’t in Russia. Those friends of Putin should not be allowed to perform here, without comment!"