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Misguided Western criticism of Russia’s anti-gay laws

7 February 2014

In the last few weeks I’ve been bombarded by propaganda, in social media and elsewhere, urging protests and boycotts of the Winter Olympic Games being held in Russia this year because of their anti-gay laws.

Much of the criticism has been so hyped and over-the-top that I simply have not believed it and not passed such messages on. Many of them made exaggerated claims that sounded wrong to me, but it would take too much effort to check, and as there are far more serious human rights abuses in the world, I thought it was a tempest in a tea cup, and not really worth the bother of checking to try and ascertain the facts under the hype. It would be a bit like the rest of the world boycotting the soccer World Cup in South Africa over e-tolls. I’m against e-tolls, and I’m against depriving gay people of their rights simply because they are gay, but there are bigger issues in the world.

Now, it seems, someone has saved me the trouble, and has ascertained the facts for me:

Amid the furore, it’s easy to overlook some simple facts. Homosexuality in Russia – unlike more than 40 countries in the Commonwealth and 70 worldwide – is not illegal. To date, over six months since the law came into force, fewer than a dozen people have been fined for “gay propaganda”. Not a single person has been jailed. Russian police do not have powers to detain people they suspect of simply being gay or lesbian, as a New York Times leader erroneously stated last year. If this were so, then how do we explain the fact that gay clubs are able to advertise and operate in Moscow and other big cities?

via Russia’s anti-gay law is wrong – but so is some of the criticism from the west | Marc Bennetts | Comment is free | The Guardian.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in that article, but I do agree with the main point, that the criticism of Russia has been overhyped.

In 1980 the US led a boycott of the main Olympic Games in Moscow because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan. Some twenty years later the US itself invaded Afghanistan, killing thousands of people, and now US gay rights activists are urging another boycott of the Russian Olympics because a dozen people hasve been fined.

That gives me the impression that gay rights activists are utterly self-centred, have no sense of proportion, and lack any credibility whatsoever.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 February 2014 9:25 am

    My dear friend, everybody in Russia (including the state sponsored TV and radio channels) recognize that Moscow is not really Russia. It’s a country within a country that has its own laws. And this lawlessness of the capital is enormously antagonizing to the rest of the country.

    Gay clubs in Moscow do still operate because they are owned by Putin’s associates. But a teen girl in Bryansk is hounded and listed as a juvenile delinquent simply because she told her friends that she is gay. And this is a real story.

    And two kids in another tiny provincial town are hounded to the point where they kill themselves because they were gay. And that’s a real story.

    And I can tell you dozens of more real stories about real people who don’t visit the gay clubs of Putin’s cronies in Moscow. Russia is much much bigger than Moscow. And truly horrifying things are happening.

    I know that you are a good, caring, compassionate person. Please believe me that the horror of being gay in Russia (or any FSU country) is more than words can describe. For just a few years gayness has not been a criminal offence in our countries. And now it is yet again. And the only reason this persecution is being visited upon people is that Putin needs to distract the attention of the public from the rigged elections of 2012. And this is so wrong that there are no words to describe it.

    • 8 February 2014 5:30 am

      I think one must distinguish between laws and behaviour. Here in South Africa our constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I understand that to mean at least that the government is prohibited from making anti-gay laws. Yet there are still people who behave violently towards gay people, or people who are perceived as gay. There is also rape and domestic violence, despite these being prohibited by law.

      • 8 February 2014 5:42 am

        Today, Liudmila Ulitskaya, one of the most famous Russian writers widely known abroad, was interrogated at the Attorney General’s office in Russia. The writer is being accused of promoting homosexuality by mentioning in one of her books that gay people exist.

        So laws in Russia are spurring very bizarre behaviors.

  2. 7 February 2014 9:42 am

    By the way, the boy who shot up a school in Moscow this week did so because his ultra-religious KGB (today called FSB) family convinced him that his teacher was gay and deserved to die for that.

    • 8 February 2014 9:23 am

      Aye, but if you read this article on Gay teen suicide you see that most of the cases referred to took place in the USA. My point in this post was not to claim that there is no homophobia in Russia, but rather that there as much, or more in some other countries, including those that have been urging a boycott of the Winter Olympics.

  3. Rangjan permalink
    8 February 2014 2:06 pm

    “I’m against depriving gay people of their rights simply because they are gay, but there are bigger issues in the world” –
    As someone who believes every human life is important, I object to this because it implies some hierarchy of rights. Can we only start caring about gay people once the children of Gaza and Somalia have been seen to? This is a false argument, and some would say to speak up against any injustice (big or small) is an important thing. Christ himself spoke for people that were simply not considered important.

    Regarding the comparison with other countries, of course it is valid to compare, but how does this excuse the inhumane treatment of even one gay person in Russia, by a thug who is exhonerated by an unjust legal system, which is acting with the spiritual approval of the established “Christian” church? Anyway, the people who have been urging me to take a stance against the Russian government are equally vocal about gay rights (indeed broader human rights even) around the world, so they can hardly be accused of hypocrisy.

    • 11 February 2014 9:23 am

      My objection was precisely because it implied some kind of hierarchy of rights — and of wrongs, for example that the US has the right to kill Afghans, but the Russians don’t, and that minor violations of human rights by Russians are far, far worse than gross violations of human rights by the USA.

  4. Dan permalink
    11 February 2014 5:28 pm

    There is a very ugly double standard at play, at least in terms of the American government and media’s role in fanning the controversy in the build up to the Winter Olympics. If I am supposed to boycott Russia’s Olympics because of this law and the small group of people who have been fined under it, then what pray tell am I supposed to do to respond to the fact that Guantanamo Bay remains in use?

    • 11 February 2014 7:53 pm

      Thanks Dan, I”m glad that someone gets it!

      • Rangjan permalink
        13 February 2014 3:42 am

        I still don’t get it. The American government aren’t boycotting Sochi or asking me to. The people who are asking me to boycott Sochi and take a stand against the Russian establishment are the same people who criticise the US government for various human rights violations.

        Your argument works as a straw argument. Does anyone seriously look to the US government for ethical guidance? By all means focus on their hypocrisy but what will you be telling me next: Pope Francis is Catholic?

        • Dan permalink
          13 February 2014 2:09 pm

          I guess I should I elaborate. It seems to me that the politicization of the Sochi Olympics is to a large extent based on a manufactured outrage because of the input of both the American government and media. Not that I think there is a conspiracy between the two, rather there is a perfect storm of sorts where the self-interest of the two groups coincides in the cause of making Sochi as political as possible. It isn’t that there isn’t a legitimate discussion to be had about the role between Russian censorship and unsanctioned acts of civilian intolerance, but that this has been completely overshadowed by the rallying cry to slay a dragon that doesn’t exist.

          The media coverage of Sochi has been extremely loaded and more than a little bit dishonest. You could make a very dangerous drinking game out of taking a shot whenever CNN, the late night talk circuit, and various popular pundits like Stewart and Colbert vaguely discuss threatening “anti-gay laws” without giving any information on what those laws entail. We’re being bombarded by ominous non-information that is either ignorant or engineered to play on ignorance. Because of this, a lot of people are extremely misinformed. Many of the people I interact with are under the impression that homosexuality has been formally outlawed in Russia, and that the Russian police are performing some sort of purge. “But Colbert said that you can be arrested if you are wearing a rainbow T-Shirt, or even just look like you might be gay”, they tell me. “But the Daily Show said that Putin can’t tell the difference between gays and pedophiles”, they insist. Even Google is confused. On the first day of the games they changed their search page to a rainbow flag and a statement from the Olympic charter that athletes should be able to compete without discrimination… which is magnificently irrelevant, because Russia is not turning gay athletes away from the games.

          I say it is a manufactured outrage because when I speak to people about it here in SA or on the internet, or watch/read discussions about it, most of the outrage is based on misunderstandings and outright misinformation. Very few people are actually talking about, or even aware of, the actual contents of the law. Vaguely threatening nonsense is good for the ratings, so what does it matter if people are energized by things that aren’t strictly true?

          The White House is just happy to undermine Putin because of their larger objectives around opposing the Eurasian Customs Union. The fact that homosexuality is punishable by death and life imprisonment respectively in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with whom the US maintains close alliances and extremely lucrative financial arrangements, is of no import. It is enough that the President include Billy Jean King in the Olympic delegation and the White House wins a PR victory that plays very well on the news and among gay rights advocates, but accomplishes nothing of substance. People *do* look to the White House for moral leadership, not just in America, and it matters that the US is publicly winning a moral victory that it does not deserve on the grounds of its policies. It isn’t driving the boycott, but it is cheaply and hypocritically scoring points from the controversy.

          I can’t blame gay rights activists for the preponderance of sensationalist journalism and geopolitics being attached to this cause, but the credibility of the cause is nevertheless damaged by people who are disingenuously fanning the flames so that they might score points.

          • Rangjan permalink
            14 February 2014 6:29 pm

            There is so much ignorance around so many topics. Why does the dishonesty of people jumping on a bandwagon, with ulterior motives, undermine the credibilty of activists who are being honest and seek equality, and in whose eyes does it undermine their cause?

        • Dan permalink
          15 February 2014 12:00 pm

          Two things. 1) You can’t draw a line between the ignorant and the informed, and hold that one side are bandwagoners and the other legitimate activists. It is much more blurred than that. Everyone who self-identifies with a cause and tries to promote it is an activist, and the grassroots support is what drives a cause. This includes everyone in campus organisations and youth groups who are spreading flyers about it and trying to support the boycott through word of mouth, everyone who is posting in support of the cause across youtube and in other social media, and everyone who is sending chain emails to spread awareness of it. And overwhelmingly the outrage of the grassroots activists seems to be founded on homosexuality being illegal in Russia, on the Russian police arresting people on suspicion of being gay, and other shocking, sensational things that just so happen to not be true. If most of the populous support for a cause is the sensationalist noise of dragonslayers attacking windmills then the credibility of both the cause and its advocates is diminished; because the cause seems to require distortion to be convincing, and the activists seem too gullible to be trusted.

          2) It isn’t as though the informed activists who know better are resisting the popular distortion of events. Google’s action with changing their search page was extremely well received, and I haven’t seen anyone on the side of the boycott say “I appreciate the sentiment Google, but you have completely missed the point”. Likewise if someone is touring the talk show circuit or the late night talk circuit or various interview programs on the news, and chooses to happily benefit from the distorted claims and the manufactured outrage without correcting it, without saying “no one is going to prison for being gay, this is (just) an issue of censorship”, then that person is tacitly supporting the efforts of others to distort the issue, and furthering the impression that the truth is neither important nor adequate to the needs of the cause. None of the “real” activists who know better seem to be making any sort of splash trying to moderate the situation, they all seem happy to benefit from the overbearing hyperbole that is running wild in both formal and social media. Again, it seems as though the truth of the cause is not good enough to be convincing on its own, and the activists – where they are not just gullible and do not know better – are willing to make common cause with a popular lie when it suits their purposes to do so.

  5. George Waite permalink
    15 February 2014 9:22 pm

    Even for a religion, Orthodoxy is a primitive and backwards and un-progressive religion; you don’t even have married bishops or female clergy or the bare civilized minimum of allowing your divorced/widowed clergy to re-marry.

    • 19 February 2014 8:18 am

      The Orthodox Church does not regard beimg primitive as necessarily being a bad thing, or being progressive as necessarily being a good thing. Truth is a more important criterion than progressiveness or lack of it.

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