I have been avoiding writing about the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics: my feelings are too fierce and conflicted, and I cannot find precision. Yet I feel I cannot stay silent, so I prevail upon you, my reader, to grant me a space to speak openly and honestly on an issue which is full of complexity and tangle.
Looking to the Olympics in Sochi, and knowing what queer people are experiencing in parts of Russia, I feel fury and helplessness in roughly equal measure. Lest it be unclear, in Russia we are not simply talking about a place where queer people do not enjoy civil rights. This is not an issue of “equality” primarily, as it is often feebly presented by politicians and pundits in the US and the UK. Certainly, queer people in Russia suffer under the weight of discriminatory laws, as they do in the USA, the UK, and many other countries (the UK, until quite recently, had a remarkably similar law to the one recently passed in Russia banning “gay propaganda”). But far more significant, and far less well-reported in the media, is the systemic campaign of violence, terrorization, and humiliation perpetuated against queer people by neo-Nazi organizations, and the way that this campaign is supported by the inaction and complicity of Russian police forces.
The distinction between the two cannot be stressed enough. The difference is illustrated most powerfully by the grotesque and despicable “Occupy Pedophilia”, a “campaign” in which groups of vigilantes lure gay men (so far I have only seen reports of gay men being targeted) into what they believe to be romantic encounters, only then to ambush and kidnap them, and subject them to terrifying and humiliating ordeals which are filmed and posted on social media sites. In these videos young men are stripped, beaten, have their heads shaved, are covered in urine (or, in reported cases, forced to drink urine), and have their body parts painted. They are forced to say things on camera: “admitting” to being pedophiles, or begging to be burnt or even killed. “We should kill you, shouldn’t we? You deserve death?” asks one vigilante of his victim in one video. People perceived as gay are hunted on t he streets, knocked down and kicked, people stepping on their faces. In one haunting image a naked young man is forced to wear a bucket on his head while another drums on it with drumsticks. I will not post the links here, and I do not recommend you view them: I did so in order to inform myself of what was happening, and have have had to carry the images with me.
When these atrocities are reported to the police, frequently they are met with disdain. Victims report being told that this is what gay people should expect, and no action seems to be taken against the vigilante groups. Queer rights activists are arrested and, once imprisoned, beaten and threatened with rape. This is nothing less than state complicity in the dehumanization of a vulnerable segment of the population.
None of this is getting the attention it deserves, even though it has been widely reported. On Any Questions (a UK current affairs radio program which features a panel of public figures and politicians responding to audience questions) this past weekend both former Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Jeremy Browne MP, when asked a question on this topic, bleated pathetically about “differing social views” and engaging “those who think differently to us” as if what was under discussion is a difference of opinion as to how to brew tea. Neither showed any comprehension that what queer people face in Russia is the state-sanctioned dehumanization of a whole class of people, increasingly supported by nationalist rhetoric linking declining population in Russia to homosexuality: a form of national scapegoating which has, correctly in my view, raised the specter of Nazism in the minds of some. This supine reaction from those with actual power seems typical: the corporations which sponsor the Olympics have done equally little, while the International Olympic Committee has done nothing substantial to respect its own stated values. Complicity abounds.
So, fury. I am not, I hope, a violent man. Yet reports such as these fill me with the urge to meet violence with violence. Although I am not Russian, and have never been to Russia, know very little about Russia, through the strange alchemy of queerdom I feel that to some degree the community under attack is my community, the people my people, and I want, if I could, to protect them. Sometimes I feel that if I had my way I would find all those perpetuating terror against queer people in Russia and end them. Sometimes I want them to die. Because what they are doing is absolutely unforgivable and utterly evil. Of course I recognize that to do such a thing would be a wrong, and it screams against every cultivated moral sense I have: but here refined, cultivated moral niceties are burned away by the fire of rage.
Then comes futility. Because, let’s be honest: what can any of us really do? Queer people are being hunted, beaten, humiliated, publicly shamed in Russia, and I can’t do a thing about it. No single action I can take will dramatically alter the situation there, and it is difficult to see what collective action foreign activists can take to change the culture and political climate of a whole nation. I’ve cancelled my Visa cards, tried to avoid Coke, educated myself on the issue, and now I’m writing a blog post. To the gay teenager who now lives in fear of his life after footage of his beating has been posted on Russian Facebook this is scant comfort.
This feeling of helplessness is compounded by what I feel to be my disconnection with some parts of the queer activist community when it comes to how to approach issues like these. The situation in Russia surely demonstrates the limits of “relationship building” – the mechanism almost universally praised within the movement for bringing about significant cultural change in the USA. “Knowing a queer person makes you so much more supportive of gay rights!” we are told ad infinitum in the USA, and certainly the development of relationships with queer people is a significant predictor of social attitudes over here. But in countries where cultural prejudice is ingrained and reinforced by government, where people are terrified to identify as gay, I think this a feeble strategy. In such places what must first occur is the development of a genuine cultural, economic, and political power base among the oppressed minority, such that it is made clear that messing with that minority has consequences. As Harvey Fierstein said in a radio interview recently, the community must become sufficiently powerful that it can declare “You know what boys? Time to stop fucking with us”. The constant calls for “engagement” with Russia through the medium of the Olympics seem to me, in the throws of my fury, utterly ridiculous: what is there to “engage” here? Who is your dialogue partner? Frederick Douglass reminded us that power must be met with power, and airy talk of “engagement” sounds to me like a concession of powerlessness:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.
I also part company with some of my queer activist friends on the question of a boycott. When the games were first awarded to Sochi, and after more information about the abuses heaped on the queer community started to be revealed, some suggested we should boycott the games. Others responded by pointing to the desire of the activists on-the-ground who, it is reported, were against a boycott. Others argued that the Olympics would be the perfect way to highlight the violence against queer people in Russia, a platform for activists. But how has that turned out? It was clear from the outset that neither the Russian government nor the International Olympic Committee would allow any significant protests whatsoever, and protesters in other cities are arrested and beaten while the world watches the skating. When well-meaning groups outside Russia attempt to speak out – Google, the Red State Democrats – they face scorn from queer activists for – what? Not doing enough? Doing anything at all? So much for the games encouraging the visibility of the issue in a way which will lead to actual change.
Furthermore, I must object to the idea that, in principle, activists should always follow the wishes of the people most directly affected by an oppressive situation. If we are honest – and this is an extremely difficult and unpopular point to make – it is perfectly possible for activists “on the ground” to be wrong. Sometimes, despite their local knowledge and direct experience of oppression – indeed, sometimes because of it – local activists can misjudge what is the best course of action.
Oscar Rickett, writing in Vice Magazine, argues that those who supported a boycott should simply have “listened” to the LGBTQ community in Russia, who are said to have opposed a boycott by a wide margin. Criticizing celebrities such as Stephen Fry of “falling into the classic white saviour trap”, Rickett points to the UK’s and USA’s own record on queer issues as a way to defeat the idea that “outsiders know best”. But this is far too pat: we cannot absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility to determine what we think is the best course of action, given our position of privilege, by pointing to what other people would have us do. The views of others must be a consideration, but ultimately we must follow our own conscience, whether that makes us seem like a “white savior” or not. Refusal to act in accordance with our best moral judgment because we are in a position of privilege would ultimately disable any action by the privileged on behalf of the oppressed.
Speaking against a boycott, others stressed that we shouldn’t dash the hopes of athletes who have trained all their lives to compete. Let’s scotch this argument right now: your right to bobsled in front of an international audience, however hard you have pounded the slopes, is fantastically insignificant in comparison with the right of other human beings to live their lives free from terrorization and degradation. The fact that such commentators as Greg Louganis can talk of not wanting to “victimize athletes who had worked so hard” through a boycott is a sign of moral priorities tragically misplaced. Forgive me if, while queer people are cudgeled on the streets of Russia, I care little about curling. Indeed, Olympic athletes should welcome the opportunity that an invitation to compete offers them: by choosing to turn it down, they had real power to exercise moral authority which most of us cannot dream of. Action by the athletes themselves, it seems to me, is the only course of action likely to have wide-spread resonance and effect here.
A refusal to compete would be entirely within the spirit of the games. The Olympic Charter is filled with commitments to “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”, giving the lie to the ludicrous (though oft-repeated) idea that the Games should be kept “not political”. A claim that “universal ethical principles” exist and should be supported as the primary purpose of the Games is a profoundly political statement. The second Fundamental Principle flatly states that:
The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
In the context of the Sochi Games, these words seem parodic, even obscene. Is there any doubt whatsoever, given the complete refusal of the IOC to live up to these values, that the Olympics is now in fact an entirely commercial enterprise, with now higher god that gold? Any athlete who refused to participate in a Games under such circumstances as those which surround Sochi (and, indeed, China) would be standing for principle, at least. Whether it would make a difference is another matter, but it would least be a moral stance. The only other acceptable stance for athletes, it seems to me, is to compete and protest at the same time – and if that means disqualification, so be it. The athletes have a moral authority here we do not, and with that authority comes a responsibility to exercise it.
Between the fury and the futility, what can be done by those who are not competitors? Ultimately, I think we are in the unpalatable position of having to work for change in our own communities so that, in the future, we have more power to exert when future Sochi’s occur. We need to build power in our own communities so that we can drive the policy of our countries, and encourage our countries to support more robust and forceful international institutions which might be able to do something substantial for all the people living in fear because of who they are, wherever they are in the world. There are many countries – including countries competing in the Olympics – where the situation for queer people and other minority groups is as bad or much worse, and all of it deserves our attention. To the extent that we can leverage these Olympics to draw attention to the values in the Olympic Charter – values the International Olympic Committee refuses to stand for – these games might serve a useful purpose. Otherwise, I say we give up on the Olympic enterprise: it has already lost its soul.