Russia, we're watching you: Today, tomorrow, and long after Sochi
An opinion piece from the DIVA vaults
I'll be watching the Winter Olympics today. I'll be watching today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Despite calls for a boycott, I'll be watching you Russia. I know you'll be on your best behaviour when the eyes of the world are on you. But in a few weeks when the snow suits have been dusted down, the bobsleds are back in the garage and you've pissed £30 billion up a ski slope, I'll still be watching, and I hope you will too, because that's when shit will get serious.
Too many of the protests over Russia's treatment of queers, as highlighted in a disturbing film this week by Dispatches, have focussed on the Sochi Games. But rather than flooding Coca-Cola's Facebook page with abuse for sponsoring the event, cutting up our Visa cards, refusing to buy Russian vodka that was actually made in Latvia or turning off our TVs, I think we should be focussing our energies not on knee-jerk reactions but on solidarity with Russia's LGBT community longterm and pressuring the Russian government to repel their ridiculous "no promo homo" law.
This is not a situation that can be fixed with a hashtag, and something that will be impacting the lives of thousands of Russian people long after the athletes have left the Olympic village. We can argue until we morph into Katie Hopkins about the International Olympic Committee's decision to award the games to Russia, but China's record on human rights are far worse and they were allowed to hold the summer games in 2008, not to mention the 1936 games in Nazi Germany. The fact is, the IOC are unscrupulous bastards with no regard for human rights of any kind, but that's another fight for another day.
How many of us would actually know about the situation in Russia if Sochi wasn't happening? How many film crews would bother infiltrating the violent gangs of neo-nazis who hunt gay men for fun? How many articles would be written? How many Facebook posts would be written, or tweets sent? How many petitions signed, sealed, delivered? How many companies would be changing their logos or window displays in support of LGBT equality? My guess is not very many. After all, there are dozens of countries around the world where queer people are imprisoned, beaten and killed every day, but there are no viral campaigns in support of their plight. That's not because we don't care, but without such intense media scrutiny, it's easy not to see it.
The most important thing to remember is that Russian people – the ones who have had their right to exist pulled from under them by state sanctioned homophobia, who have been humiliated, battered and drenched in urine by vigilante groups, who have been ostracised from their families – they are not calling for a boycott. They want us in Sochi. They want us to see what's going on.
If we turn off our TVs, however well-intentioned that might be, it's akin to ignoring the situation. It's not easy to look at, I know that. I watched Hunted with a sick feeling in my stomach and wanted to turn it off. But we must look. Russia is at a turning point towards fascism, and gay people are being made a convenient scapegoat for economic problems the country is facing. But it won't stop with them, and if we ignore it, I dread to think what might happen.
Sam Dick, head of policy at Stonewall, says: "If you engender a culture where being different is seen as a threat, and you can stop people being different, and you can legislate to stop people being different, and you encourage explicitly or otherwise to punish those that are different, it has a wider impact. It's anyone who might at any given time be perceived to be not quite the norm. Even if Russia's anti-propaganda law gets repealed tomorrow, we will still see the consequences of it in 15, 20, 25 years time, because it's sent a message that difference is unacceptable in Russian society."
That's not to say we shouldn't use Sochi as a platform for protest. I've been so impressed by imaginative campaigns like #signoflove by Lush, Amnesty International's ballet performance outside the Russian embassy in London and the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion's provocative Luge advert with a little more thrusting than is probably necessary. To Russia with love, certainly. But that needs to be long-lasting commitment, not a one night stand. Let's make sure the momentum continues long after the snow has melted.
This piece first appeared online in February 2014.
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