Things you should probably have an opinion on: Sochi

Things you should probably have an opinion on: Sochi

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Not one to shy away from the big issues of the day, Online Features Columnist Fran Lowe tackles the LGBTQ issue surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Norway at a Medal Ceremony during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics Image credits: Megan Mallen
Norway at a Medal Ceremony during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics
Image credits: Megan Mallen

This week, I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one whose main mode of procrastination has been watching the Winter Olympics. The Olympics is always a time of celebrating sporting greatness, and allows viewers an insight into sports that they previously knew nothing about. Myself, I’ve become something of an expert on Curling in the last few days, much as I did with Water Polo back in 2012. It’s all about sporting inspiration, with the eyes of the world all fixed in one place for once.

However, there is so much more to the Olympics than sport. While the world’s press is in Russia, it is exposing a lot more than just the action on the ice rink. With its anti-gay laws becoming the focus of international media attention, Russia has perhaps got more than it bargained for with this Olympics. So what exactly is going on?

Well, Russia’s apparent homophobia really hit the press back in 2013, when its government banned the distribution of gay ‘propaganda’, which essentially made it illegal to claim that homosexual relationships were equal to heterosexual ones; Russia made it clear that being gay was to be considered abnormal, and that what President Vladimir Putin calls “non-traditional relationships” are not welcome in their society.

What with Russia booked to have the 2014 Olympics, and of course the World Cup in 2018, the world descended into an angry furore. The Olympics, especially, are surely meant to promote equality, international amiability, and the concept that anything can be cured through sport. As a patriotic Brit myself, I like to think that this is exactly what we achieved with London 2012. The Russians, however, seem to be contradicting the entire image of ‘love through sport’ that the Olympics encourages.

But once the world opened its eyes to Russia and its LGBT rights – or lack thereof – it was revealed to have more skeletons in its closet than the average graveyard. It is illegal in Russia for a man to hold hands with a man if there are minors around – it counts as ‘propaganda’, and is considered a dangerous influence on children. For the Russian government, the idea of a child growing up to understand that being gay is okay is absolutely abhorrent, and anyone who allows this influence is therefore a criminal.

What’s worse is that the punishments aren’t just a fine, or a short stint in prison. Things in Russia are getting violent and brutal. In a recent article for GQ magazine, Jeff Sharlet opened the door to the underground world that Russian gays are forced to live in: think secret gay bars, think rape, think shame. Vicious, cruel murders of Russian gays are becoming more and more frequent, but, as Sharlet reveals, the authorities fall on the side of the murderers, not the murdered. He tells stories of people throwing stones at gay men, and instead of arresting the attackers, it is the victims that the police take away, undoubtedly for yet more abuse.

So where has all this come from? It is sometimes difficult to imagine, coming from as tolerant a society as our own, that such cruel treatment of anyone who fails to conform to the categories pre-prescribed for us – either a man who fancies women or a woman who fancies men – is still going on so openly, and even considered a normal part of society. Well, some people have been claiming that it’s all to do with Putin’s unashamed imperialism, something left over from Soviet days; perhaps this desperation to be a strong, powerful nation, producing lots of good Russian children with everyone conforming to his laws means that homosexuality is unacceptable. It is perhaps linked to a fear that if one lets people slip out of ‘normality’ so far as to allow them to be gay, they could continue to slip further and further, until the authorities have lost control.

Vladimir Putin Image credits: APEC 2013
Vladimir Putin
Image credits: APEC 2013

This is nothing that the world hasn’t seen before: for example, homosexual men were tortured and killed alongside the Jews in Nazi Germany, again regarded as a threat to ‘normal’ society. Here in Britain homosexual men have also been persecuted: Oscar Wilde was famously imprisoned for homosexuality in the 1890s, and homosexual acts between men were only decriminalised in the 1960s. But what is frightening is that this is happening now. You would be forgiven for thinking that the world had come beyond this, and that we had bigger political fish to fry than worrying about people’s sexual preferences.

For Vladimir Putin, however, sexuality and the ‘normalisation’ of it ties up with his major political ideology. His vision for imperial Russia is one of everyone conforming, not just to his rules about sexuality, but to his rules about everything. It could be considered a dream of absolute power.

So what does all this mean for the Olympics? Well, there was a lot of talk when ‘gay propaganda’ was first made illegal in Russia of boycotting the Sochi Olympics altogether. This obviously didn’t happen. But what has been interesting to watch is the reaction of the homosexual population of the games to Russia’s policies.

It’s great that many openly gay athletes have not been deterred from still attending the games, and even better that they are doing really well. Perhaps the greatest kind of protest is not to boycott the games, but instead to turn up and grab the gold. If anything, this shows that homosexuality does not make you any physically weaker or less adept than what Putin considers to be ‘normal’.

During their coverage of the Winter Olympics this week, the BBC ran a feature on the games and homosexuality. While Clare Balding, openly gay herself, was introducing it, I could tell that she was fighting an urge to show her anger – it’s clear that this is a very hot topic over there in Sochi. Essentially, the BBC’s attitude, and indeed that of the athletes, whatever their sexual orientation, is one of defiance.

Personally I am reminded of the famous image from the 1968 Summer Olympics, in which black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed the Black Power salute while on the podium in Mexico City, a symbol of their defiance against worldwide racism. I can only hope that the bravery being shown by athletes in Sochi will have a similar effect in the long term, and change Russian popular opinion, to understand that being gay does not make you abnormal, that it is not a dangerous influence on children, and that the sporting world, and indeed society as a whole, should be inclusive to all.

Fran Lowe, Online Features Columnist

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