Though it has been depressing to witness the extent to which homophobia and violence against LGBT people remain so widespread in Russia as the Winter Olympics take place, it has been commensurately heartening to see the outpouring of support from so many other countries for Russia’s beleaguered gay population.
Artists, celebrities, politicians, ordinary citizens and fellow sports people have all registered their solidarity with the LGBT community and spoken out against discrimination and Russia’s strict laws against ‘homosexual propaganda’.
This is good – Russia continues its regrettable backward slide from nascent democracy into a corrupt authoritarianism, and as the IOC saw fit to make Sochi the winning bid for the Winter Olympics it is only right that the rest of the world ensures that the event does not descend into a mere forum for pro-Putin glorification.
But as the swell of voices raised in protest at Russia’s treatment of the LGBT population grows, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that many of those people throwing stones are living in enormous glass houses of their own – and that while it is great to revel in being less homophobic than Russia, this achievement alone is not much of an accolade.
As Laurie Penny writes in the Guardian, being less homophobic than Russia is no great feat of tolerance – the bar set by Russia can be cleared by almost anyone:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expressing support for LGBT people in Russia, who are facing grotesque discrimination. But being less homophobic than Russia is not necessarily something other countries should give themselves a medal for. A lot of things are less homophobic than Russia.
Queer activists call this sort of thing “pinkwashing” – playing up the gay-friendly branding of a state or corporation to make it seem more liberal than it actually is. Britain likes to think of itself as a tolerant place, but the Border Agency has been accused of almost “systematic homophobia” by the gay rights group Stonewall. Leaked Home Office documents show bisexual asylum seekers being asked degrading questions during hours of interrogation by Home Office officials – questions that included: “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?”
This is just one of several examples given by Penny, who points out the less-than-stellar track records of various other supposedly enlightened western countries – even the Canadians.
All too often, a generally increasing acceptance of homosexuality and LGBT people within the general population is not met with an equal acceptance in national bureaucracies and institutions. This is certainly true in Britain, as Penny points out, but is just as true in the United States, where condemnation about Russia’s awful treatment of the gays has been vociferous, but also seemingly ignorant of the many cultural and legal barriers to the full acceptance of gay rights that remain in America.
Britain’s Channel 4 television network apparently decided that the best way to respond to homophobia in Russia would be to make this video – entitled “Gay Mountain” – which has been playing nearly continuously between their scheduled programmes:
The song, which begins in the same portentous style as the Russian national anthem, quickly descends into a camp, colourful, musical extravaganza as the (shirtless) singer exhorts “Good luck Gays, on Gay Mountain”. The profound lyrics continue “Mens and all mens / And womens and all womens / Come together tonight, sing with pride”.
One YouTube user, identifying him or herself as IMB2U, commented:
We should all thank the Russian government for bringing everybody together and creating this huge wave of support and love for the LGBT community. Their hateful ignorance has brought on something wonderful.
Something wonderful? Really? Mildly amusing, perhaps. Entertaining and catchy, yes – if your tastes lean that way. But “wonderful” seems to be overdoing it a little.
While the sentiment behind Channel 4’s video – that of solidarity and support – is certainly admirable on the surface, one has to admit that it does absolutely nothing to improve the lot of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in Russia. Gay Mountain works perfectly at enabling us Brits – enlightened and sophisticated as we supposedly are – to feel good by sneering at the “backward” Russian people, but does absolutely nothing about actually helping the Russian LGBT community.
Laurie Penny also questions the value of these flamboyant gestures of support which do little, if anything, to help people in real need of tangible help and intervention:
Personally I have no problem with media outlets, businesses and individuals making jokes at the expense of homophobes, or hanging out the queer pride flag. It’s a statement of support that’s fun and costs nothing. But the fact that it costs nothing is precisely the problem. As soon as there’s a price tag attached, the foot-shuffling begins. The rainbow flag is supposed to symbolise safety. Hung over a bar, it’s supposed to mean that this is a place of refuge. For western nations to brand themselves in this way while subjecting LGBT people to humiliation and imprisonment at their borders is simply disingenuous.
While western nations flap the rainbow flag defiantly in Russia’s face, actual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being harassed and abused at their borders when they arrive seeking safety. Supporting the rights of LGBT people worldwide is to be commended, but if that sentiment is more than pinkwashing, it should be backed up by action at home.
This just about sums it up. Statements of support from any quarters are welcome, but they don’t mean an awful lot when there is nothing to be lost by making them. Channel 4 has no business interests in Russia, the Russian people will not see the Gay Mountain video in any significant numbers, and Channel 4 has no contracts or revenues at stake in that country. In other words, they have absolutely nothing to lose. Contrast this with the behaviour of a western company such as Coca-Cola, which has a direct financial stake in Russia – both through sales of their product and sponsorship of the Sochi Games – and which has been very timid indeed when it comes to condemning the persecution of gay people there.
But what really tarnishes Channel 4’s civil rights musical extravaganza is not the pinkwashed song, but the caption that appears on screen at the very end – the words “Born Risky” superimposed on the gay rainbow flag:
What exactly does Channel 4 believe to be “risky”? They risked absolutely nothing, we know that. But we do know that Channel 4 is inordinately proud of the fact that they like to get a rise out of people by setting out to provoke and offend them:
We were set up to experiment, provoke and entertain, and to put our profits into our programmes. You may love us, you may want to punch our lights out, but we make programmes we believe in. We can do this because we were Born Risky. That doesn’t mean “risky” as in naked abseiling, it means creatively risky. Like seeking out undiscovered talent, making films about taboo subjects or championing alternative voices. Born Risky means going where other channels can’t to create something new, alternative and different.
And so the whole campaign is revealed to be not about actually improving the circumstances of gay people in Russia (which we already knew) and not even about believing in or promoting gay rights in general, but rather about product differentiation. It was about burnishing Channel 4’s image as a provocative, edgy television network that likes to push the boat out, defy normal conventions and be a hip alternative to the boring old BBC.
Gay Mountain wasn’t about concern for LGBT people – it was just the next iteration of a very slick, very successful marketing campaign. And that goes rather beyond mere pinkwashing. I’m not sure which colour best represents the soul of a television network which is happy to capitalise on the suffering of foreign LGBT people to show its domestic audience just how cool and trendy it is, but it almost certainly would not be pink.
So by all means, let’s join in another rousing chorus of Gay Mountain. Let us be proud on gay mountain, as the song exhorts us to do. But when the singing is over, let’s not fool ourselves that we have done anything other than disturb the neighbours and make ourselves feel better, comfortably smug in our relative openness and tolerance.
And at least we helped improve the ratings of a certain television network.
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