Russia: Sochi as the Battleground with Homophobia
Sochi as the Battleground with Homophobia
by Alexander Lowë
September 9, 2013
Vladimir Putin is the ultimate populist but his once record approval ratings have been in steady decline in Russia. Like many aging and fading celebrities, he would stop at nothing to get back on top of the charts. And with unlimited PR resources at his disposal, he could give it a go at almost anything - driving Formula 1 car, flying jet fighters, tranquilizing polar bears, throwing darts at whales, descending 1395m to the bottom of lake Baikal, playing piano and singing in front of the Hollywood stars and much more.
In July Kremlin released footage of Putin's take on three most popular TV series at once: Man vs Nature, Survivor and Monster Fishing. Russian bear chasing the president while fishing, driving a motorboat and petting reindeer in a remote region of Siberia. But many Russians smelt something fishy seeing the 60yo president showing off a pike he caught that was claimed to weight 21 kg, sparking on-line debates in social networks.
“Wonder who planted
that fish for Putin to catch," was a caption placed under
two online pictures, one of Putin holding the fish and the
other showing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev emerging from a
river in a wetsuit with a satisfied
Putin cultivates 'Armed and dangerous' image but shows his tender side to PM Medvedev, the couple nicknamed “Batman and Robin” in the leaked CIA cables
It becomes increasingly harder to swallow Putin's publicity stunts even within Russia, with too many turning into PR disasters. The latest catch reminded of Putin's scuba diving in the Black Sea when he emerged with some Greek artifacts that were later admitted to be specially left for him to 'discover'.
Khabarovsk zoo keepers recognized their own
Amur tiger in a TV shoot of Putin sedating supposedly wild
animal in the National Park to inspect its teeth and fit it
with a tracker.
Putin attempted to help endangered Siberian cranes begin their migration by leading them in a motorized hang glider, however birds refused to follow. Moreover, editor-in-chief of the Russian magazine “Vokrug Sveta” Masha Gessen was sacked after refusing to cover suggested stories from the Kremlin story.
And before that Putin again embarrassed himself when he was anonymously voted into Hells Angels gang after driving a Harley Davidson tricycle at the biker’s festival, but that got him by default onto a list of people banned from visiting Finland.
Why Putin tries so hard to reinforce his tough macho image in Russia? The country is increasingly homophobic, deliberately distancing itself from the decadent West while rediscovering Orthodox values. Once almost entirely a country full of atheists, they have quickly adopted religion, with 72 per cent of Russians now belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. In this traditionally patriarchal country, women are considered well below men, and coming out as gay is regarded as voluntarily giving up inherited male privileges and rebelling against the whole nature of the strictly controlled conformist society.
The biggest gamble and publicity stunt for Putin was securing the Winter Olympics in his beloved Sochi, Russia's subtropical resort city with average temperatures in February of 11 °C. Choosing Sochi to host the Olympics in Russia could be compared to choosing Miami for winter Olympics in the USA, however Putin was brought up in a country that used to deport whole villagers overnight several thousand kilometers away from the homes and even attempted to reverse Siberian rivers to run southwards.
However Putin's project backfired when he subsequently chose to appeal to the lowest homophobic feelings of his electorate initiating and signing two anti-gay laws earlier this year. But what had become his most populist move within Russia, with the Russian Parliament voting unanimously is support of the 'anti-gay propaganda' law, had been as much unanimously criticized in the West evoking memories of the cold war and drawing inevitable parallels with the Nazi crackdown on homosexuals.
The Sochi 2014 Olympics are being increasingly compared with 1933 Berlin Olympics which Hitler used to showcase the strength of its regime and superiority of the German race. Similarly, the authoritarian Putin regime intends to demonstrate its power to the world, as well as uniqueness of the Russian nation where homophobia becomes the most prominent feature.
Gays have always been outcasts in the country but since the breakout of the Soviet Union, homophobia has been on the rise. Post USSR anarchy amidst political and economical turmoil, loss of hope, savings and downgrade from the status of superpower to the third world country made Russians look for the scapegoats and authorities channeled this hate toward specific group, Russian LGBT. In the last 8 years attitudes to sexual minorities worsened. According to the latest poll by Levada group, over 50 per cent of Russians want gays to be either isolated or forcefully cured with 5% even calling to get them 'liquidated'. Almost 90 percent support ban on gay parades, gay marriage, gay adoption and new law against 'gay propaganda'. So homophobia has became a common ground for the entire nation and otherwise diverse Russian society.
Nothing can be worse than being perceived a homosexual in Russia, making most Russian men, including the president, compelled to project the macho image and reassure in their masculinity. Traditionally, the only deviation of strict gender role for a man was in the entertainment and art scene where gay themes could be explored however exclusively in caricatured, clichéd and humorous context.
According to this year's poll, 89% per cent of Russians claim there are no gays amongst their friends or family members. Indeed, in Russia gay people are practically invisible. And the absence of real images creates stereotypes of gays as weak, feminine, treacherous, anti-social and filthy. Caricatured images make an easy target for ridicule and hate. And it is easier to make a villain from someone you don't really know, like or care about. It is another case if this is your friend, family member or a prominent citizen.
Flamboyant drag artists perceived for decades to be gay in Russia: Boris Moiseev, Sergey Penkin and Verka Serduchka (pictured). All deny being homosexual. Still, it appears that drag is the only gay image known in Russia. There are just no 'out' celebrities, no role models, no gay icons, nothing good or positive about gays.
In the United States polls reflected increased public acceptance of homosexuality once majority of population reported having gay friends and relatives. President Obama became an active supporter of LGBT rights and even changed his mind on marriage equality but not before the USA poll indicated that majority of eligible voters was supporting gay marriage. Similarly in New Zealand, John Key who once opposed civil unions swinged into supporting equal marriage following the majority of the population.
Politicians going against their nation are doomed damned. And politicians who manage to discover and explore new trends and tendencies within their electorate are likely to gain popularity and votes. How can we realistically expect Putin to endorse gay rights and veto anti-gay laws that were unanimously voted in by Russian Parliament and supported by nearly 90% of the population? Putin is as much product and victim of homophobia as the majority of Russian citizens and patronising pressure from Western democracies on the issue of gay rights is only likely to alienate Russians and reaffirm their homophobic attitudes.
So GLBT rights seem to be replacing communist ideology as an antagonistic divide between East and West, developed and developing worlds, causing a new cold war and possibly even descent of a new Iron Curtain amidst calls for boycott of Sochi Olympics, Russian vodka and pressure on Western Companies investing in Russia.
I am not much of a believer in the efficiency of boycotts; last year's LGBT boycott of Chick A Fill restaurants in USA has only increased restaurant sales. The boycott of Chinese products (for its crackdown on Tibet) is still officially on; however China only increases its dominance in the world markets. The Olympics have already been boycotted before but the boycott of 1980 Olympics in Moscow just boosted national pride and increased popularity of sports with USSR winning a record number of gold medals.
This time the loudest 'boycott Russian Olympics' screams come from rather limited part of the GLBT minority, people who are generally far from understanding sports or Russia or LGBT needs in Russia. They not only seem to be delusional about their power but also ignorant or not caring about clearly expressed views of LGBT Olympians and Russian LGBT organizations opposing it. And inside Russia these hysterical screams from drama queens are perceived not simply as anti-Russian but as anti-democratic true faces of 'aggressive gay activism' and are portrayed as unfair oppressors of the majority by the minority.
Russians can hardly be scared with isolation, the country has been behind the iron curtain before and people lived without Coca Cola, Mars chocolate bars and Procter and Gamble products just fine. Putin himself was confined to a secluded enclave of the Russian Military base in Germany for years. And his parents survived the most horrific siege of Leningrad by Nazis in WW2, when the city had their supplies cut off for nearly 900 days, where daily rations were reduced to a single 125g slice of bread with thousands dying from hunger daily, resulting in nearly 1,5mln deaths during the siege.
It is very naïve to think Russia can be easily influenced or quickly cured of its nationwide homophobia. Russians have learned to be very weary and defensive of the West and adhere to strict gender roles where all men are brought up as potential soldiers (there is still mandatory inscription for all Russian males) and remain under constant pressure to reaffirm their masculinity while females have to adhere to the strict role of child bearers in charge of all the housework with certain expectations of dress code, make up and behavior, giving them specific reputations even outside Russia.
I believe this traditional gender separation and sexism are among main reasons of both homophobia and popular stereotype of gays as drag queens. And ironically, education, perceived as 'gay propaganda', is the only possible cure from the state sponsored homophobia. Showing gay people as normal citizens, exposing positive gay role models can make gays acceptable by society.
With Sochi Olympics our out and proud speed skater Blake Skellerup takes upon himself a unique mission to show the Russian audience that gay man can also be masculine confident sportsmen and not hide inside the closet. Until then, the only gay sportsmen image known to Russians was flamboyant U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir who was matching too well traditional perceptions of homosexuals despite remaining in the closet for most of his career.
Now, married to a Russian immigrant, Johny Weir became a passionate advocate for Russia which accepts his camp image but teaches fellow sportsmen to “watch what you do when you leave the Village, don’t be aggressive, and don’t wear a big rainbow flag fur coat. If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.” However, New Zealander Blake Skjellerup is determined to show off his true colors and wear rainbow pin in solidarity with LGBT Russians even if it gets him into trouble in Sochi: “there’s no way I’m going back in the closet. I just want to be myself” he says. And his causal and cool kiwi bloke attitude along with a small rainbow pin seems to be more dangerous in Russia than weird costumes and flip flops from John Weir.
Self proclaimed 'hardcore Rusophile' Johny Weir is famous for his queer fashion sense
It is the normality of gays that is perceived scary and threatening there. Anton Krasovsky, TV host the editor-in-chief of financed by Kremlin Kontr TV, was sacked immediately after coming out on live TV with the words “ I am gay... and I am just the same person as you, my dear audience, as president Putin, as prime minister Medvedev and deputies of our Duma." That stance is the most dangerous gay propaganda in homophobic Russia, where the only place for gays is to wear dresses and feathers on stage while remaining closeted but any non camp looking gay guy should be immediately removed from the blue screen.
It is written 'homosexuality is normal' that can get you detained and fined (as it happened to Irina Fedotova, first victim of regional 'gay propaganda law in Ryazan), joking about a friend's tattoo looking gay that can get you killed (as reported last month in Pskov region) and coming out to your mates can turn into brutal torture (A youth in Volgograd was stabbed by his mates with beer bottles, his genitals cut off and his head smashed open in a public park on Victory Day 9 May) and where making advances to your colleague is also deadly for the offender but where the killer gets 14 months of jail time only (last month’s trial in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia).
In all these cases the fear of homosexuality, homophobia, is the reason behind aggression and hate. And perpetrators are also the victims, handicapped by the deadly strain of homophobic virus spreading across Russia, where polls indicate nearly 90% of the whole population as its carriers. Homophobic rage masks fear and vulnerability of this tough looking but emasculated nation where even the President in all his bravado feels threatened by his portrait in female underwear making police seize the painting and shut down the gallery where it was displayed.
In Russian prisons gays are placed next to the toilet in common cells, being treated as outcasts and common sluts. Inmates can use them any time to satisfy their needs but outside of sex one cannot speak to them or touch them, their cloth or even their bowl and even occasional such contact would 'contaminate' an inmate turning him automatically into unspeakable untouchable outcast as well to only be used for degrading sex.
Russian TV presenter Anton Krasovsky got fired after coming out on live TV show
With one of the greatest incarceration rates in the world, Russia has adopted prison terms and treatment of homosexuals into this so called civil society. In this patriarchal orthodox Country, men are scared of any association with homosexuality as it can turn them into untouchables, destined to serve the lowest needs of this increasingly criminalized and authoritarian regime, to be gang-raped, tortured or ridiculed to reaffirm grassroots popularity of its leaders.