How Best To Challenge Putin?

14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 - Day Four

Matt Steinglass debates the question:

America has reached a point of relative tolerance for diversity of sexual orientation today. Looking back 30 years, it’s not at all clear that this was destined to be the case. The formation of sexual identity is fraught with fear, and it’s to be expected that social and political players will take advantage of that fear to build in-groups, stigmatise out-groups, and mobilise power. I’m not sure that even Millennials could possibly not know how this works in America, but it certainly ought to be familiar to those of us who remember how culture and politics worked here in the early 1980s. If we’re looking for particular American elements that are lacking in Russia, I would say the most important would be any history of successful civil-rights movements by minorities, which Russia has never really known.

Of course that would suggest that neither a boycott of Sochi nor the display of rainbow flags is likely to accomplish much; and they won’t. Then again, since a boycott has zero chance of happening, what we’re really talking about here is whether to display rainbow flags. And we should. Why not?

That’s my feeling too. What Russia’s law does is something never done in America. In America, the First Amendment allowed for expression of ideas about homosexuality even when social attitudes and legal prohibitions were far harsher. For centuries, the First Amendment was gays’ only real recourse to ameliorate our lot. There would have been no gay rights movement without a free press, without the Mattachine Review, without the Daughters Of Bilitis, without the ability of Frank Kameny and others to march outside the White House in the 1950s. They could take everything from us but our right to speak in public – and yet it is precisely our right to speak publicly that Putin’s neo-fascist government bans.

That’s why Pat Buchanan’s glowing endorsement of Putin is so repellent: not because Buchanan doesn’t know full well how to offend and provoke (his comparison between gay Russians wearing rainbow buttons with the Nazis is lazily Coulterish even for him), but because he is, before anything, a writer and polemicist, and he is effectively supporting the suppression of writers and polemicists and even simple button-wearers in another country. He is so caught up with his own disdain for homosexual equality that he does not see that he is now attacking the very freedoms that made his entire life and career possible. Can you imagine him supporting a foreign country’s right to suppress religious speech? How then can he support one that suppresses simple public expression of the fact of someone’s sexual orientation.

And yet I’m struck by how many gay writers are leery. Jim Burroway:

[I]n Africa, the belief that LGBT rights and that gay people themselves are a product of foreign meddling. Those charges find fertile ground in Africa where European colonialism — and its import of sodomy laws — still casts a long shadow. That is why public threats of cutting foreign aid (as distinguished from private diplomatic engagement in which the same messages have been delivered) have sometimes been much more disruptive than helpful to LGBT advocates on the ground. The same potential effect could conceivably play out in Russia, where an attack on its laws, however repulsive and oppressive to human rights they may be, is seen as an attack on Russian sovereignty itself. This is where foreign protests can backfire.

I can see that. But, as so often with civil rights movements, there is also a very simple need: to speak out in defense of core human dignity. Russia’s ban on even public statements of homosexual orientation, i.e. speaking mere truth, is so sweeping, so all-encompassing, and so likely to spawn brutal personal persecution it simply demands we protest it. We’re Americans. To be told that we cannot even wear a rainbow button in public at an Olympics event is outrageous. What if Russia banned public statements of Jewish or Muslim identity from the stadium or Olympic village? Would there be any question that the Sochi Games would now be over?

This is an attempt to cleanse the public sphere of all references to gay people – and to do so at an international event, allegedly open to all.

It is designed to make gay people, wherever they are from, non-persons, to enforce the closet by force.

If we stand by and let that occur – and even allow it to be imposed on our own citizens when visiting Russia – we are complicit in the persecution. I’m not a boycotter, but I strongly believe that Putin cannot both get the prestige from the Olympic Games and enforce laws as prohibitive and radical as this suppression of speech. And if we keep our nerve, I think we can call the bully’s bluff. Yesterday, the US track star, Nick Symmonds, showed what’s possible. On Russian soil, he dedicated his silver medal to his gay and lesbian friends:

“As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them,” Symmonds told Russia’s R-Sport. “Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.” “I respect Russians’ ability to govern their people,” he added. “I disagree with their laws. I do have respect for this nation. I disagree with their rules.”

Let’s see what Putin does to him. I don’t believe in kowtowing to bullies. I believe in standing up to them.

Recent Dish on protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws here and here.

(Photo: Nick Symmonds of the United States celebrates winning silver in the Men’s 800 metres final during Day Four of the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 at Luzhniki Stadium on August 13, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. By Julian Finney/Getty Images.)