by Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger, ’16
This is the third part of a four part in a series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.” The first part is entitled “Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide,” and the second part is entitled “Boycotting Boycotts of Russia.”
The call to boycott the Sochi Games is not the first time there has been a call to boycott the Olympics due to civil rights or social justice abuses. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in the SSSR, while the SSSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics in the US, largely due to animosity and suspicion of each other.
Before that, though, there was talk amongst black academics and black athletes in America to boycott participating on the US Olympic team in the 1968 Mexico City Games to protest social conditions of blacks at home. While the boycott was never realized, black and allied athletes found other ways to protest, the most famous being the Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both African American, after coming in 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the 200 meter sprint.
And over the past few years, there have been calls in parts of Brazil, namely among the favela residents and the younger generation to not attend the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio, where nearly 170,000 people have been forcibly relocated out of the favelas, among other unjust actions. (Note: the word ‘boycott’ generally isn’t used; rather, there are calls to not attend or watch either event on television.)
In America, there has been surprisingly little coverage, outside of the New York Times, of the amazing resistance work many of the favela residents have been engaging in to save their houses and communities. Major US news outlets only picked up the story and the sense of outrage many Brazilians felt towards their government when protests and riots broke out during the Confederations Cup, the test run for the World Cup in June and July this summer.
Most of their coverage of the riots and protests in Brazil this summer were very cursory, and did not paint a very clear or complete picture of what has been happening in Brazil over the past few years. Very few stories discussed the depth of the resistance work many communities have been engaging in over the years, nor did they often discuss how significantly the residents of the favelas have been impacted by the World Cup and the Olympics. Most of the stories emphasized the recent violence against the protesters, spending little time or coverage detailing the huge levels of corruption embedded in nearly every level of the Brazilian government.
Earlier this summer, I talked with Clementine Jacoby, a Stanford student who had spent the past year working in a circus in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. She had this to say about the media coverage and international help:
What Brazilians want is to harness the international attention aimed at these mega events and use it to bring light to the inequity and corruption that Brazilians have known about for a long time.
They don’t want attention for police violence and colorful protests. They want the international public to use their voices and their dollars thoughtfully.
There’s a prevalent frustration among Brazilians that the international community sees Brazil as a country full of beautiful women and fine soccer players and samba. It has all of those things, but it’s a hugely tragic thing to consider a country in the state that Brazil is in spending billions to project that image to [the] world, and even make it concrete in some sense for a few scant weeks, while ignoring the very real infrastructure problems that Brazilian citizens face.
What bothers me most about the calls to boycott the Sochi Winter Games is how significantly American and Western reactions differ towards the injustices occurring in the name of the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil, and the injustices happening in Russia in the name of national and religious identity and sovereignty.
Not just activists, but millions of ordinary citizens are asking the US and other foreign powers to do two things: educate themselves about deep corruption and social inequality in Brazil, and to not watch or attend the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Largely, we have failed on both accounts.
On the other hand, in Russia, LGBT Russians are being persecuted legally, politically, socially and economically, largely in part due to anti-West sentiments, and without being asked to by LGBT Russians, nor asking Russian activists what to do, nor critically reflecting on our actions we are calling for boycotts of Russian vodka, the Olympics and potentially even economic sanctions of the country.
Furthermore, the media is only discussing this violence and persecution through the lens of the Olympics, a venue where the application of that law will primarily affect Americans and Westerners, when the real story and the real violence is not the violence committed by the state but the extreme and horrific violence committed by vigilante individuals and groups like Occupy Pedophilia against LGBT Russians.
This tells me a number of things about American attitudes towards race, LGBT equality, and Western imperialism.
First, it tells me that Americans are more interested in violence and injustice against LGBT individuals than they are in violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities. Beyond that, it tells me that Americans are largely ignorant of and/or do not care about the deep history of violence against poc and low sec communities mega sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics have caused for many decades now.
This begs the question, “Why do Americans care more about violence and injustice against LGBT individuals than poc and low sec individuals?” There could be a number of reasons. Gay groups like the Human Rights Campaign, with the help of the media and entertainment programs (Will and Grace, the New Normal, Glee, etc), have constructed an intentionally non-threatening and assimilatory picture of “gays” in America, generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class, bicoastal men with a love of fashion. Younger and more liberal crowds have largely embraced this image of gays. Gay groups have also effectively appropriated the language and the struggle of the black civil rights movements. In some ways, by co-opting the black civil rights movement’s language and struggle, mainstream gay organizations have sent the message that the struggle for racial equality, justice and liberation are over and there are new battles to fight, when as recent events have shown us, that could not be farther from the truth.
Recall the last week of the Supreme Court’s session earlier this summer when the Court seriously harmed Native tribal sovereignty and gutted the Voting Rights Act, among many other seriously flawed decisions. Yet when on Wednesday morning at 10 am EST the Court proclaimed that DOMA and Prop 8 were illegal, and Facebook, Twitter and the media erupted in jubilation at how “equality for all” had been won. Not only does this ignore the reality that for the majority of queers, marriage equality does not in any way begin to bring justice to their lives, but it falsely and implicitly argues that everyone else besides gays was, more or less, equal.
Let’s also recall the more recent trial of George Zimmerman, or more aptly, the trial of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had followed Trayvon for blocks, racially profiled him, and ignored the calls of the dispatchers to not pursue or confront him. Yet somehow our justice system functioned perfectly by not convicting a child murderer because the defense argued Zimmerman was standing his ground against a younger, thinner, unarmed black boy who was returning from the store with skittles and ice tea.
What makes me sick is the way Americans, in particular white Americans, view the case in retrospect. From MSNBC:
The NBC/WSJ survey also showed that views about the trial of George Zimmerman also broke down along racial and partisan lines. A plurality of respondents, 48%, said the trial had no effect on their confidence in the US legal system while 32% percent of all adults say it decreased their confidence and 17% said it increased their confidence. Blacks and Democrats were more likely to say the trial diminished their confidence in the legal system, with 71% of blacks and 48% of Democrats saying so. Just 35% of Latinos, 24% of whites and a small number of Republicans, 13%, said the same.
Only 24% of whites, the majority racial group in America, had their confidence in the US legal system affected by the trial of Trayvon Martin. Even among Democrats, less than 50% had their confidence affected by the trial. We are clearly unable to recognize and empathize with injustice, nor change our legal system to deal with that injustice, at home.
And if we are unable to recognize, empathize with and challenge injustice at home, how can we do so in Brazil, without the injustice at home becoming more apparent, without appearing so hypocritical that we would be forced to confront the legally entrenched white supremacy in our legal codes and justice system at home.
By contrast the gay activists movement led by the HRC has had two main issues at the top of their agenda for over a decade now, legalizing gay marriage and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Now that mostly both are achieved, equality, in the minds of many Americans, has been won for all gays and lesbians at home. This is clearly false—ask any queer person of color, any economically underprivileged queer, any street walking trans* woman, any homeless queer youth, any undocumented queer, etc.
But because the American psyche largely feels absolved for the injustice against queer people, Americans can feel safe challenging queer injustice abroad, because no major gay rights group is going to force them to look in the mirror and confront the continuing oppression the majority of non-white, working class, rural, homeless, undocumented queer and trans*people have known for far too long.
Secondly, the difference in American reactions between the injustice in Brazil and the injustice in Russia suggests to me something far more insidious, and significantly scarier. The difference in reactions shows me that gay rights have the potential to be incorporated into American, British and more broadly Western imperial policies, leveraging neo-liberal support at home for gay equality to bolster support for more political, economic, military and social interventions by Western countries whose sexual political and cultural paradigms are very different than ours. As discussed in Part 2, the PM of England says he wants to “export gay rights” across the world, ignoring the fact that “gayness” is a concept foreign to many cultures, and that many other cultures and countries have significantly more liberal and embracing sexual politics and paradigms than England.
The potential for unchecked gay imperialism over the next century frightens me. I don’t want my identity commoditized even further to be used as a weapon to continue centuries of Western imperial intervention.
As the decade and century continue, I urge you to be critical of any calls to export gay rights, to bring equality for all gays and lesbians across the world. Challenge the imperial nature of these campaigns. Yes, their intentions may be good, but the methods being used fall in line with a terrible tradition of US and Western intervention. Ultimately, these imperial efforts will do nothing but backfire and continue to harm the very people they set out to help.
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 looks forward to the day when she can adopt two pot-bellied pigs, three kids and a labradoodle to keep her company.