by Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger, ’16
This is the second part of a four part series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.” The first part is entitled “Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide.”
“You stupid idiots kill people all over the world, Iraq, libya, afganistan, syria etc. You interfere internal politics of many countries. And now you stupid idiots try to teach us how to live? Go fuck yourself and your president and leave us to decide OURSELVES on how to live and rule OUR country. Just understand that you opinion mean nothing here.”
The following is an exact quote from a Buzzfeed post mentioned earlier in Part 1, which reveals an important hypocrisy to understand about modern American and historical Western politics.
America and the West currently and historically tend to view themselves as the world’s watchdog, the big brother, if you will, the more socially advanced sibling who can help their more primitive brothers and sisters advance. In earlier centuries, this phenomenon was mainly exacted through Christian conversion.
Through the mid to later parts of the second millennium, the West measured a culture’s or people’s humanity on a hierarchy, with white people from Western Europe at the very top. As we discussed earlier, by the 1500s and 1600s, though, European visitors of Muscovy were writing about how primitive and barbaric certain aspects of the country were compared to theirs, including comparing the social attitudes each had for same-sex sexual acts. Quoting from glbtq, “What is more, these visitors’ reports were part of a cultural trend in which Western Europe began to imagine Eastern Europe as a place that was Christian but only barely “civilized.” These stories of sodomy in Muscovy may well have been accurate, but a certain degree of exaggeration to emphasize Muscovy’s “primitive” and “barbaric” character cannot be easily dismissed.”
As discussed in Part 1, that sense of Muscovy being more primitive and barbaric that the West, hence socially and culturally beneath them, contributed heavily to Peter the Great’s desire to westernize at the turn of the 18th century. And later in the 20th century, the USSR was seen largely as the enemy of America, freedom and liberty. The political and social division between the West and Russia, and the general sense of entitlement and superiority the West feels over Russia, has significantly colored Russian’s perceptions of the West, especially America. These sentiments are very apparent in the realm of LGBT rights, seen largely as a Western, foreign concept. It is important to understand that while people had same-sex sexual and romantic encounters in Russia and it’s ancestors, the modern Western paradigm of ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gayness,’ ‘LGBT,’ and ‘identity’ is very new to Russia, and was made available to Russians through both increased communication between the West and Russia, and the West actively bringing that paradigm over. It is the use and exportation of this paradigm to understand and view same-sex sexual and romantic acts, and the lack of respect for traditional modes of understanding same-sex sexual encounters, that has increased anti-LGBT sentiments in many countries, in this case Russia.
We, Western, Americans in particular, need to understand our presence in LGBT activism in recent decades in Russia has not only complicated LGBT Russian’s situation, but has made and continues to make it nearly impossible for LGBT Russians and LGBT Russian activists to have rational, safe, productive national and regional conversations about laws governing homosocial and sexual behavior. Whether we are marching in Pride Parades, or sharing editorials or articles condemning Russians’ behavior, or encouraging our governments to boycott and openly condemn Russia, our actions have overall been detrimental to LGBT Russians.
And it is the LGBT Russians who we are trying to help, let us remember. How will a boycott of Russian vodka, or even the Sochi Winter Games, do anything positive for LGBT Russians?
Stanford PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literature Jason Cieply, living in St. Petersburg, made this apt remark on Facebook recently.
“On my bus-ride to the Petergof Palace my fellow passengers (not previously acquainted) gathered around an iPhone to laugh at footage of this LGBT activist nearly being brutalized by a veritable squadron of drunk paratroopers: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dlH0STLJR1I . Pretty frightening stuff. This is the story, not the Olympics or Smirnoff.”
Even without an understanding of the deep historical dynamics at play with Russian sexual politics, we should understand that all a boycott will do, especially a boycott of Russian vodka and the Sochi Olympics, is further enrage a population who by and large wants us to get as far away from their national politics as possible. And who can blame them? We have belittled them, discounted their culture as primitive, barbaric and barely Christian, and among many other things contributed, especially in the eyes of working class Russians, to the economic and social problems that have afflicted them during and after the transitional period from state socialism to free market capitalism. Over the last half millennium we have rarely been anything but a thorn in their side, criticizing them, and we wonder why they might be mad when we make a gigantic holier-than-thou fuss about their treatment of LGBT Russians.
That is not to say I in any way condone the recently anti-LGBT propaganda law or any of the other anti-LGBT laws currently enforced in Russia. Nor do I excuse the horribly violent actions taken against LGBT Russians by nationalist and religious organizations. Neither do I believe their actions are entirely the faults of the West’s presence. It was the nationalist and religious protesters decision to attack the Pride marchers, and in some cases even kill people they suspected of having a non-traditional sexual orientation. And we should not continue to belittle them by saying that we caused them to be violent towards LGBT or suspected LGBT people. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t complicit in creating a political and social situation in which harassment, arrest and even murder of LGBT or suspected LGBT Russians is tolerated and even encouraged.
Considering all this, we are left with the question: if our presence will do little to actually help Russian LGBT people, and in fact significantly complicates and polarizes the political and social issues surrounding non-traditional sexual orientations, then how can we aid LGBT Russians improve their situation.
Maybe, I would argue, we shouldn’t.
The West, in particular the imperial US and Britain have a penchant for foreign interventions, and gay rights being the fad social issues of the new century so far, a foreign intervention to seemingly bolster gay rights will win the ruling party, as well as western imperialism, lots of political brownie points. These gay Western imperial interventions aren’t just happening in Russia. A few days ago, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, boldly and proudly proclaimed that he wanted to export gay marriage across the world. I challenge the notion that “gayness” and “marriage” are something that can be commoditized and “exported” around the world, first of all. I would also suggest that if David Cameron is so hell bent on making the situation for LGBT persons better, he should start in his own back yard, where recently a court made case law a decision which states that by not disclosing that you are transgender, even if you have had gender confirming surgery, to a sexual partner, you are a sex offender and can go to prison.
Recently, President Obama entered the public arena on this issue, using similarly imperialist language as Mr. Cameron. On August 7th, the President appeared on the Jay Leno Show, where for a few minutes he discussed with Leno Russia, LGBT universal rights, and the Olympics. They both said things that were unarguably incorrect and did significantly more damage than good.. Below is a transcript of the interview written by the Daily Kos, shorten by me for brevity and clarity.
J. Leno: Well, something that shocked me about Russia … suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that… why is not more of the world outraged at this?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country. And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.
…One of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that’s what we stand for. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere. (Applause.)
J. Leno: Do you think it will affect the Olympics?
THE PRESIDENT: I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently… (Applause.)
First off, the law does not make homosexuality illegal. The law bans propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations to minors. Not even homosexual or transsexual or bisexual propaganda, although that is the intent. It is strictly a ban on propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations to minors. Even more, is that the only real cases of enforcement are demonstrations meant to provoke the law. To state that homosexuality is illegal, and to even insinuate that Russia is rounding up gays like the Nazi’s did the Jews is not just misleading to your audience but it patently false. Leno lied, blatantly lied, on national television and the President of the United States, who should understand the law and how wrong Leno was, let him get away with it.
Secondly, it’s ironic how President Obama feels justified condemning Russia, when his own front yard is one of the least safe areas for trans*women to live, when now half of college age men will have HIV by the time they are 50 and neither the government nor Gay Inc. is doing anything about it, when over 20% of trans*women and nearly 50% of black trans*women have been incarcerated, often in men’s prisons, and those woman are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison, just to name a few of the many queer injustices we face at home.
Thirdly, the President makes the argument that there are “universal rights” and “basic freedoms” for people of all sexual orientations that “transcend every country.” Over the past century, American imperialism has transported across the world American and Western ways of thinking about human rights, that often conflict or differ with local and provincial ways of thinking about what we consider to be “human, universal rights.”
Statements like the President’s are incredibly dangerous, most importantly because they are untrue. “Gayness” and “sexual orientation” are modern, Western terms that function as part of a modern, Western paradigm and narrative of sexual attraction that are not universal. “Gay people,” strictly speaking, did not exist really before the 1900s in America, and before the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s in many other parts of the world, around which point the terms were both discussed in a more global context and America and the West began to export these terms. Same-sex sexual encounters, attractions and behaviors existed in many different times and locations across the world, including, but not limited to, Russia and it’s ancestors. But these actions were never understand to function as part of an identity, gayness, before America and the West commoditized it and transported it across the globe.
Take Senegal, for example, a country with a long history of and acceptance for same-sex sexual encounters. In a 1971 study, nearly 18% of men and 45% of woman stated that they had had a same-sex sexual encounter. Yet in the 80s and 90s, French sexual politics influenced the way in particular males who primarily had same-sex sexual encounters viewed themselves. The began to call themselves “homosexuèles,” which marked a significant Westernization in their understanding of themselves; this shift in self-understanding led to the creation of a legal and social taboo surrounding same-sex sexual encounters, and the legal and social persecution of homosexuals and those who engaged in same sex sexual encounters.
Similarly in Russia, as discussed in Part 1, during the 1990s and 2000s, increased persecution of LGBT Russians occurred largely as a reaction against the imperial Westernization of the paradigm through which same-sex sexual encounters were understood, and the significant interventions in Russian politics from Western LGBT activists.
We, America and the West, insert ourselves into situations we really do not need to be involved in far too often, thinking we know best and we’ll know how to solve the issues, without ever reflecting and asking ourselves: should we really be doing this? Is our action actually going to positively help the people we are trying to help? Or will our presence simply complicate the matter, and would it be better if we stayed out? I’m not going to get into specifics, but the call for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Games, and larger sanctions of Russia, would be seen as a significant US imperial intervention, and would do little more than stoke more anger, hostility and violence towards LGBT Russians.
What’s worse, we’d be playing right into Putin’s hand. According to Cieply, a Stanford PhD Candidate living in St. Petersburg, “the West’s reaction, every word of condemnation from Western leaders and celebrities, helps to consolidate Putin’s role as a defender of Russian values and national identity.”
In his attempt to alienate the left wing opposition, which admires the West, from the rest of Russians, he has used gay rights as a wedge issue, anticipating that there would be Western reaction against the bill. Putin is using the East/West divide in Russian sexual politics discussed in Part 1 to solidify himself as the opponent of the West, the upholder of traditional Russian values, and we have fallen into his trap, exacerbating the political divide between the US and Russia, which will ultimately continue to worsen conditions for LGBT Russians.(More on this will come in Part 4)
Does this mean that there is nothing we can do to aid LGBT Russians? Absolutely not.
When reporting or commentating on the situation in Russia, Cieply notes that “we need to foreground [LGBT Russian’s] experience rather than our own obsessions, focusing on precedent, individual acts of violence, analyzing the dangers posed and patterns in the implementation of the new laws.” We need to remove ourselves and our preconceptions about politics at home if we’re to truly understand the complex dynamics at play abroad.
We can make pathways for LGBT refugees seeking asylum in the US much easier. We can scale back imperial military and political interventions and operations as a first step to undoing a long history of unwanted and unneeded Western intervention. We can listen to LGBT Russians, find out what they need from us or for us to do (if they do need anything from us at all), and when appropriate humbly help them in the ways that they ask us to.
We can demand that the IOC protect it’s athletes from Russia’s non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda law. I do not support athletes flagrantly violating the law, because again that will be seen as a display of Western superiority and part of a larger, systematic social imperial intervention by the West (especially since most of the countries protesting and the participants who’ve promised to display “propaganda” are all white or Western). But just because we need to show respect for Russia and for their sovereignty does not mean that the IOC cannot step up and make sure that it’s athletes are fully protected. In order to do this, though, the Olympics needs to repeal its ban on athlete political discourse. As the New York Times correctly states, not only are athletes who break the law risk being arrested by Russian authorities, they risk being censured by the IOC and being sent back home. Athlete suppression must stop if the IOC is going to protect it’s athletes in the upcoming Olympics.
But most importantly, we should let LGBT Russians and their chosen allies handle the situation on their own time frame and using their own methods.This is the hardest piece of advice for me to follow, because all I want to do is scream and shout at Putin that LGBT Russians deserve better than this! But we need to constantly remind ourselves that despite our imperial inclinations to intervene in Russian affairs, if we truly want to help LGBT Russians, we need to listen, learn and most importantly stay out.
Erika Lynn is a white, feminine of center organism and a rising junior taking a year off to relax and read more. She loves to frolic in fields and splash in the ocean, and enjoys a vegetable sandwich more than anything else for lunch. She is currently crushing majorly on Alex Vause from ‘Orange is the New Black.’