A Guest Post by B. Smeaton
As I write this it’s officially day one and the 5k speed skating is about to begin. You’re bored with the Winter Olympics already, aren’t you?
For me, this usually isn’t the case. During the Vancouver games I’d be up at all hours watching everything from curling (the strategy! The mind games!) to the bobsleigh (pretty good once you get over the fact it’s not the same sort of sleigh as Santa uses). London 2012 may have gone some way to explaining what is wrong with Britain, but nevertheless I watched the entire coverage of the fencing alongside several other miscellaneous sports. The point is, I love weird and wonderful sports and positively relish the opportunity to settle down for several hours to enjoy the cross country skiing. Sochi is something I should be looking forward to.
Except for once it isn’t. If you’re reading this it’s unlikely you need any introduction to the situation facing Russia’s LGBTQ population – where Pride parades are banned for a century, and any public affection is now “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and illegal. Thanks to recent legislation supported by Russia’s conservative politicos and the Orthodox Church, demonstrators face arrest if they’re lucky; and if not can expect anything from serious violence to murder for the crime of being there and being gay. A decent background to this is provided (surprisingly) by Vice, who’s Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia doesn’t mess around and goes straight for the main issues. If you have a wee look around the internet, it isn’t hard to get a good understanding of the human rights crisis that is emerging, which is doing more than keeping young people closeted in Russia, it’s denying them basic access to healthcare, driving an outrageous suicide rate, locking them in prisons and leaving them for dead.
Naturally, this has been roundly condemned by many sections of society, and not just since Sochi, but ever since the laws have been introduced. Action which has been considered has included a boycott of Russian vodka and of the games itself. The vodka boycott didn’t make much sense – particularly refusing to buy brands such as Stolichnaya, which although Russian, sees not one penny go to the Kremlin and has a history of sponsoring LGBTQ events, particularly in the Baltic countries where Stoli is now based. Boycotting the Olympics is more interesting. Now, I don’t particularly believe that turning of your telly is going to improve the situation of sexual minorities in Russia nor “send a strong message to Putin!” like all those fucking petition sites go on about (you know those petitions that clog your inbox every week, you sign out of guilt and never hear about any of them ever again, to the point you question if these petition sites are just another way for someone to make a quick buck from ad revenue and traffic? Aye those ones) is going to change much. TV revenue is small change to an energy giant who has half of Europe literally bent over a barrel of oil. Russia’s “couldnae gie a fuck” attitude belies that where the real money is, in national resources and territory needed to transport these resources, The West™ has very little choice but to negotiate, less half their own allies get plunged into prolonged darkness. Regardless, when it comes to boycotts, we should be listening to those affected, namely the LGBTQ community in Russia, and what they have to say about it. Nikolay Alexeyev, one of the more high-profile Russian activists who, before its banning, coordinated Moscow Pride, argued clearly and succinctly that they do not favour a boycott, and this has been supported by numerous activists in the country:
We oppose the boycott of the Olympics because it would hurt the athletes, who then wouldn’t be able to participate, and also the Russian LGBT community, because they would blame us if anything goes wrong,
It is not the job of Western celebrities to call for boycotts of Sochi, especially when not in dialogue with the LGBTQ community in Russia. Now, it was always unlikely that any mass boycott was going to occur, considering that when push comes to shove states will take exposure of their sporting prowess over the basic dignity of parts of its population. Let’s not forget that many of these countries themselves wilfully demonstrate nothing but contempt to their LGBTQ citizens, and many more will be out in force when the Commonwealth Games come to town later this year (thanks, colonisation!). But even if it did, and we saw scenes similar to the 1980 Moscow games where sixty-five countries declined to participate, we need to ask what it’s really about. How much of this furore is really about the plight of Russians bearing the brunt of homophobic legislation, and how much of this is actually a return to the Cold War tribalism of old? In this respect, elites have been laying into Russia fully aware that Britain has deported asylum seekers fleeing oppression who “cannot prove” their sexual identity, fully aware that in the US last year Isla Nettles was murdered for their status as a trans person, and this list could continue – but the agenda is to portray themselves as the civilised Western countries, and again paint the East as backwards, unenlightened and so forth. The logic is clear: to divert attention from the failings of their own states, and to undermine Russia’s current position in the world market, which like China, the West considers a threat. For many of the suited and booted politicos, the homophobic legislation is merely a vehicle to continue these geopolitical games rather than principled stands in favour of human rights.
But that’s not all! The Sochi games have provided more opportunities for the budding businessman. Most notorious in these parts is BrewDog, purveyor of fancy (ie over four quid a pint) beer and ample controversy. In the past they’ve made column inches by packaging their beer in the bodies of stuffed animals, made the strongest ABV% beer ever, and before London 2012 they manufactured a brew featuring anabolic steroids which no athlete would be able to drink. What a bunch of cheeky chappies! The cheeky chappies can actually GTF. Because thousands of people living in fear of arrest and assault is something that you can use to attract attention for your own company, and cash in your tills, BrewDog have come up with Hello, My Name is Vladimir, the world’s first protest beer! Advertised as ‘not for gays’ and featuring Warhol-esque images of Putin wearing make-up, a case has already been shipped to Moscow and available from the company’s bars and online shop. There’s a lot to say about this, but first let’s quote co-founder and co-cheeky chappy James Watt in Tuesday’s Huffington Post:
We sincerely hope that when Vladimir Putin is tired from a busy day riding horses with his top off, grappling with burly men on the Judo mat or fishing in his Speedoes, he reclines on a velvet chaise longue and has one of his handsome helpers wet his whistle with a glass of Hello My Name Is Vladimir.
Oh, the banter! Where to begin. Let’s start with the bottle itself, with Putin covered in make-up, because men wearing lipstick and eyeliner is pretty fucking gay, right? Gay people do that shit, yeah? If anything, BrewDog are guilty of continuing a narrative where LGBTQ people are merely seen as the “other”, where it’s fine to make stereotypes about their dress and lifestyle, as long as it’s done in an “affectionate” way. Except that LGBTQ people look like, well, everybody else. We don’t all wear blusher, not all of us identify with drag culture, and it continues this depiction of LGBTQ people as ‘not real’ men or woman, who all dress the opposite of the way straight people do because they’re different. By the way, donating 50% of profits to “charities that represent oppressed minorities around the world” does not give you a carte blanche to make these lazy generalisations about LGBTQ people. Watt’s commentary here is particularly illuminating as well: again creating these societal myths of what non-straight people are supposed to get up to – being half naked, lounging in furniture that wouldn’t look out of place in Tipping the Velvet etc etc. The other co-cheeky chappie goes by the name of Martin Dickie, and he’s got previous form for this too. A few years ago, when quizzed on the naming and perception of BrewDog beer Trashy Blonde, Watt reports that:
A feminist quizzed us on the appropriateness of calling a beer ‘Trashy Blonde’ and using the word ‘lesbian’ in some of our promotional material. To which Martin responded;
I have nothing against lesbians at all, in fact I have some DVDs at home of just lesbians’. It went down like a lead balloon and we did not win this award.
So aye, not the sort of lads that are really fighting in our corner for promoting enlightened attitudes towards women or sexuality, or figureheads of a global protest movement. On top of this, BrewDog beer is incredibly overrated, your bars are soulless and as we’ve deduced, you’re both wankers.
BrewDog’s depiction of LGBTQ people and culture is merely the tip of the iceberg of what has been an incredibly troubling influx of so-called “pro-gay” messages and “solidarity” with gay, bi and trans Russians. Unfortunately, they have overwhelmingly been both tokenistic and tacky as fuck. According to most of social media, websites like Buzzfeed (don’t get me fucking started on these goons) and even publications such as the New Statesman, all LGBTQ people are white effeminate men who throw glitter about on a rainbow flag backdrop. Channel 4’s rainbow fest “Gay Mountain” (what a fucking awful name!) ends up double-whammying this by both indulging in these usual tropes, choosing the masculine ‘bear’ image over the effeminate gay male this time; and painting the picture of Russians as being ushanka-wearing Stalinoid miserablists that wouldn’t look out of place in US Cold War propaganda reels. There’s a Canadian advert where two lugeists grind against each other, while it proclaims that the Olympics “have always been a little gay”. There’s an Absolut vodka adspot too: “In an absolute world, there are no labels”, which is pretty ironic as the entire LGBTQ community is getting labelled through these. It’s ridiculous. As is the sub-headline in the Statesman of “Sochi? More like So-Gay!”, give me a fucking break. It’s reductionist: LGBTQ people are now “gay”, and LGBTQ women and transpeople have been nowhere to be seen. Far from being the progressive magazine, all the Statesman have done is perpetuate this narrative, missing the point in the process.
It misses the point because, as I’ve said above, people getting killed for their sexuality is no laughing matter, and nothing that a bunch of Westerners (to be blunt, straight Westerners) rainbow-washing an event is going to change. Such frivolity, I assume, we wouldn’t see where these individuals based in Russia or St Petersburg. Neither have we seen adverts with information about getting involved in LGBTQ organisations and networks or anything with links to these groups in Russia who likely could use this media attention on Sochi to generate some much-needed revenue. But it doesn’t seem to matter to people here or in the media. Say a few words, show a clip of some glittered-up man dancing with a unicorn or whatever and forget about it, saying to yourself you’ve done your bit and rested your conscience. Except you haven’t. Sochi is not about making you feel better. Sochi isn’t about straight people going on about things being “so gay”. Sochi certainly isn’t about pushing an image that not all LGBTQ people accept, while shoving those who aren’t gay white men into the background.
On this point it’s worth checking out this blog, which makes a lot of things clear about this Sochi-mania. Earlier on it was mentioned, amongst other things, that Britain has been responsible for deporting LGBTQ asylum seekers, and what this article does well is highlight that this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Olympics and human rights (or, if you will, just the snow-topped peak of the huge fucking gay mountain). Where has the outcry, the mass campaigns for all this other shit been? I’ll let the article speak for itself, especially from the position that too often the victims of the homophobic legislation have been “white enough” to elicit sympathy from an establishment that probably wouldn’t care if the location was more than a six-hour flight away. The other thing, is that housing evictions (London 2012) and sweatshop labour (Beijing 2008) don’t sell as well as LGBTQ stuff, particularly when you consider that if you’re a big company you’re likely involved in at least one of these things. Companies are ruthless when it comes to pushing an edge in the market – and if they can give the perception of giving a damn about gay people they’ll likely, at least in their minds, attract business from LGBTQ people and those who believe they support this message. In my eyes it’s very much like the commercialisation of Pride, or in other words showing you care at the expense of downplaying the serious and real politics which lie below.
If you’re still reading by this point, congratulations. I’ve not been particularly brief, but there’s been a lot of interesting angles on which to approach Sochi. You’ll also notice I’ve not made that many conclusions or outlined what I would think is appropriate action to take, and that’s because I’m not going to pretend or assume authority on this. I will however, make a few bullet points, which by now should be obvious:
1. Ask the people who are actually affected by this what they think. Western straight saviours assuming the role of liberators miss the point of liberation itself. In practice this means not calling for a boycott without consulting LGBTQ organisations and groups in Russia, or continuing to call for one despite their misgivings. Don’t think that you know more than them, because you don’t.
2. If you’re serious about showing solidarity, don’t depict LGBTQ people as exclusively white gay men. You’re perpetuating a stereotype of what LGBTQ people look like and act like which is far removed from reality. We are not “the gays”. We are not homogenous.
3. Help to promote the networks that are operating in Russia. Sorry to break it to you but your online petition will likely do fuck-all. Whereas the Russian LGBT Network (http://www.lgbtnet.ru/en/), GayRussia (http://www.gayrussia.eu/) LaSky (http://www.lasky.ru/) and others do a hell of a lot more. A lot of these organisations gladly accept donations for the work they’re doing. Even sending an email of support or subscribing to a mailing list is something practical and worthwhile.
4. Get involved at home. Homophobia does not only exist in Russia and in the so-called ‘backwards East’. Equality Network and LGBT Youth Scotland exist nationwide, but there’s also local groups you can help financially or otherwise. But it’s more than that, it’s about actively challenging homophobia wherever you go, from the “that’s so gay” brigade to the bullies at work, the Bible-bashers who come out against equal marriage, the transphobes on a certain high-profile independence blog…you get the picture.
5. Don’t be a BrewDog swilling cheeky chappy casual homophobe. Obvious
So that’s about it. Turning off your TV during Sochi and climbing the gay mountain is unlikely to do much good for LGBTQ people at home or in Russia, at least in my mind. On the one hand it provides nothing more than a problematic distraction from a violent situation in one of the world’s largest countries, on the other it paints very dangerous images of what LGBTQ people are like and how they think. If we are to be serious about challenging the tired stereotypes and tropes, we don’t let straight marketing executives and editors tell us what is and isn’t ‘gay’, not in Russia, not in Rutherglen, and what the appropriate response is. That’s for The Gays® (remember them?) to decide – listen to them.
Actually I lied. One more thing.
While writing this I saw a lot of stuff on social media from people laying into sport. “But the gay people, fuck figureskating!” was the cry. “I’m going to fucking BOOO that Russian speed skater” said others. On the surface, there may be a point – sport has evolved, for the worse, into a neoliberal merchandised multi-billion dollar industry. The IOC couldn’t give a damn about human rights as long as the show stays on the road. I get it. However, sport in it’s purest sense is still something which should be celebrated. Music has become a huge industry full to the brim with arseholes, but that doesn’t stop you listening to it. Same goes here: if you play it or if you watch it, as something that gives you a bit of pleasure in what otherwise is a Monday to Friday 9-5 grind, gets you away from it all, who am I to judge. It’s not a case of playing off sport against human rights violations, if anything sport has again found itself being brought into disrepute by everyone from homophobes to rich guys in suits with big cheques. But that’s for another time.
Unsurprisingly, if you’re into it that is, the Dutch team pretty much swept the speed skating.
The Olympic struggle for human rights needs more than Boycotts
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