Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Russia?

With its winter Olympics approaching in February 2014, all eyes are on Russia’s horrible homophobia. Its dreary dead-eyed leader, Vladimir Putin likes to assert his masculinity by showing off his chest to anyone who’ll look, sometimes while riding a horse, holding a gun, fishing or swimming. Type “Putin bare chest” into Google images and it looks like stills from a failed audition for the film Brokeback Mountain. Enough said.

After legalising homosexual acts in 1993, Russia has recently discovered it hates LGBT people, passing one of those mean-minded “don’t say gay” laws and enabling violence and humiliation of gay people, often by shaven-headed thugs. Anyone who attends the Winter Olympics and unfurls a rainbow flag, participates in a gay kiss or talks about being gay will be subject to arrest and probably worse.

So while homophobia is far from “solved” in the West, there has been a media and social media outcry about Russia. Even my mother has released an “open letter” on her Facebook page I think. Everyone is having a lot of ideas, but there is not much agreement on the best way to proceed. Gay skater Johnny Weir advocates going to Sochi because that’s what he’s trained to do. Stephen Fry says boycott the games. Barack Obama and David Cameron tut tut at Russia but won’t have a boycott. John Amaechi says Olympians should use the podium as a soap box. Dan Savage has called for a boycott of Stoli vodka.

Personally, I don’t know which is the best answer to “solve Russia”. I’m not that confident, and I suspect none of it will make an immediate difference. So I’d say, do everything, but don’t bitch about people who are well-meaning and want to do something different to you. Perhaps the best strategy is a multi-pronged attack. So do something rather than nothing.

Here are some things that history tells us:

Countries which are insecure and/or overly ambitious (perhaps because they were once superpowers or would like to be superpowers but aren’t at the moment) tend to suffer an identity crisis and so their frightened governments try to unite their people around hatred of a minority group within their own boundaries. This often involves moral panics around easy targets.

All leaders eventually fall. Either in a gold-encrusted bed, surrounded by devoted underlings or hunted down, found hiding in a drainage pipe and raped with a bayonet.

Homophobia is usually a case of two steps forward one step back. Britain decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, then in the 1980s it passed Clause 28 which lasted oh, 12 years or so. Russia is having its backlash and it isn’t going away any time soon. But one day it will. And when Putin is long gone, there will be gay monuments and gay museums in Russia, and its government will apologise.

Finally, gay rights activists have a kind of special superpower that means they don’t shut up and they never let it lie. This makes them very annoying to their opponents. But it also means they always win. It’ll get worse before it gets better in Russia. But it will get better.

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