Op-Ed: Putting Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws into Perspective

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American LGBT activists have targeted the Winter Olympics in protest of Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws. Whether it’s pouring bottles of vodka in the gutter, disrupting orchestra performances, protesting outside embassies, or hijacking corporate sponsors’ twitter hashtags, activists and organizations have made Russia’s treatment of queer citizens one of Americans top two concerns about the games.

One popular pro-gay graphic circulating on social media shows the Coca Cola logo from the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin under the Nazi regime beside the modern version plastered all over Sochi. In an attempt to shame a company that makes a fortune from selling an unhealthy beverage and using loopholes to avoid paying their taxes, organizers are trying to draw a comparison to Coke’s sponsorship of Hitler’s games.

Unfortunately, they manage to completely erase the pain of the Jewish holocaust by exclusively claiming it for our own. While LGBT people were persecuted and killed by the Nazis, it simply doesn’t compare to genocide and only serves to paint us as shallow vapid creatures only concerned with our own self-interests. Russians aren’t exterminating LGBT people en masse; there is simply no comparison.

Worries about the safety and security of both athletes and spectators from terrorist attacks have dovetailed nicely with photos and Facebook memes showing battered and bloody gay Russians beaten by police or attacked by deranged vigilantes. Citing the potential for terrorist attacks, the government has issued a formal safety warning for American visitors and athletes are telling family members to stay home.

The American attention span, however, seems to have glossed over why Sochi would be a target for terrorist attacks. If you spend time on conservative political sites, you’ll learn that the potential attackers are Muslims, but not much more than that. The Russian resort town isn’t in the Middle East and Al Qaeda isn’t involved. Without the known support beams, Americans’ myopia allows them to focus on the comfortable trope of the Muslim terrorist while ignoring anything in the bigger picture.

Curiously enough, the Coca Cola graphic could actually be used more appropriately by Chechen separatists responsible for the terrorist attacks than gay activists. They, like their Circassian neighbors, were slaughtered en masse by the Russian government and the killings have continued into modern times. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Chechnya in 1999 that killed 150,000-200,000 ethnic Chechens and displaced another 300,000 civilians.

The Circassians were conquered by the Russians in the early 1800s and were used as an example to other Muslim tribes in the area: resist and you will be wiped off the face of the Earth. More than 600,000 deaths later, the Circassians were the first stateless people in modern history. More than three-fourths of the Circassian population was killed and survivors were deported to modern day Turkey. They were shipped across the continent from the port of Sochi.

The wounds are still fresh enough that terrorists under the leadership of the Caucasian Emirate put out a statement last year that read, “We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games.”

The neighboring Chechens didn’t fare much better. Under Stalin in 1944, the entire Chechen population was rounded up and shipped off to Siberia and the Asian desert in train cattle cars. One-third of the Chechen people died from starvation, disease, exposure, and violence. They started to trickle back to their homeland years later, but remained a target of suspicion and discrimination until the Soviet Union dissolved.

Following other Caucasus nations like the Ukraine, Armenia and Estonia, Chechnya tried to break away from Russia and rebels succeeded briefly in 1996. Putin invaded the country three years later and put it to the torch — burning entire towns and leveling the capital of Grozny. You could see Chechnya burning from space and America barely paid attention.

The slaughter of the Circassian and Chechen people was genocide of the same scale as the Nazi extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and gays. By expanding our vision beyond our own interests and boundaries we can see how the underpinnings of the Winter Olympics and our common connection isn’t anti-gay sentiment or corporate sponsors. Genocide is what we have in common.

With relations between the U.S. and Russia at an all time low since the Cold War, presidents Obama and Putin have spent years going back and forth over Syria, Edward Snowden, and Iran among other issues. Are we shocked that American media has shone a giant spotlight on Russia that illuminates a flaw for every ideology? Are you a liberal? Let’s talk about gay rights. Conservative? Muslims could blow you to bits over there. Middle of the road? There’s always Edward Snowden and government spying.

The drummed up nationalistic fervor may be subtle, but it’s there nonetheless. Russia may have dropped off the list of America’s top movie bad guys as Middle Eastern terrorists captured our attention following 9/11, but the cultural zeitgeist is still set to automatically distrust the Russian government. They make the perfect target for activist anger for the continuing mistreatment of their citizens — gay and straight.

Still not sure if cultural bias is playing a role? Consider this. One of America’s allies, India, recently criminalized gay sex in a ruling from the country’s highest court. Where is the outrage? Where is the barrage of memes, boycotts, and corporate shaming?

Ignoring the history behind discrimination and prejudice doesn’t lead to understanding or forward momentum. Overlooking Russia’s role as a historical foil for America, India’s colonial past and how British law and religion led to their ban on homosexuality, and our own past record on LGBT rights is dangerous.

While American gays are justifiably outraged over Russia’s law banning the “propaganda of homosexualism among minors,” we should acknowledge that some of our own states include similar language in their laws. Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, has a law that bans “the advocacy of homosexuality” to schoolchildren. At the time, Utah law criminalized same-gender consensual sex and those convicted faced up to six months in prison.

In a New York Times op-ed, actor Harvey Fierstein writes, "Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered? Although Mr. Putin may think he can control his creation, history proves he cannot: his condemnations are permission to commit violence against gays and lesbians.”

Fierstein is shortsighted in his support of the Nazi comparison. Demonization isn’t all that’s required to make genocide acceptable; ignorance of our shared past and a willingness to overlook our own faults is also required. Our pain, both historical and modern, is no more or less traumatic than the anguish of the Chechens, Circassians, Jews, or Gypsies.

When we neglect to see how LGBT rights are interconnected worldwide to the rights of other minority groups, we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to the lives of all LGBT people. Advocating for the rights of queer Russians is, of course, a worthy pursuit, but we can’t encourage lasting changes in global human rights if we’re wearing blinders to our shared violent and discriminatory past — and how it continues unabated worldwide.

This is bigger than Russia’s treatment of LGBT people and we have a duty to put the recent violence in its proper perspective. History demands no less of us. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.


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Greg Kabel
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