Exploiting LGBT People On Gay Mountain

Belgium Russia Gay Rights

 

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:

So edgy.
So edgy.

 

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.

Advertisements

Vladimir Putin, Gay Marriage’s Best Salesman?

Temperatures in the netherworld dipped below zero yesterday, and the outlook is forecast to remain glacial for the indefinite future. It’s official – hell has frozen over. And you don’t need a thermometer to bear witness to this fact – simply head over to Cristina Odone’s blog at The Telegraph and see for yourself.

Odone has publicly re-examined and changed her stance on gay marriage. Throwing her hands in the air in apparent acknowledgement of the inevitable, Odone – somewhat resentfully – now supports extending the institution of marriage to homosexual couples.

If, like me, you held the chances of such a thing ever happening to be so vanishingly small that its occurrence would represent a bellwether event in the movement for equality and civil rights, then this is more than just cause for celebration. We should celebrate. There must always be pause for reflection and thanksgiving when someone who once sat on the other side of the fence comes out in support of equal marriage, and bringing a hitherto-excluded group of people into the fold of marriage.

But after the celebration, it is also right to wonder what makes someone who is seemingly implacably opposed to an idea suddenly change their mind. Proponents of gay marriage will want to know this so that they can focus their arguments and target their resources where they will do the most good. And it is here, unfortunately, that one of the most high-profile recent converts to the cause of marriage equality will do them absolutely no good at all.

Because Cristina Odone was convinced not by rational argument or through personal experience, but by the President of Russia.

Vladimir Putin made Cristina Odone support gay marriage.

All the reasoned argument in the world could not sway Cristina Odone. But apparently this man has what it takes.
All the reasoned argument in the world could not sway Cristina Odone. But apparently this man had what it takes.

 

And this dramatic volte-face was carried out by a woman whose own vast persecution complex over gay marriage only recently led her to this spectacular “feed me to the lions” meltdown:

[David Cameron] may get away with bullying a great many – perhaps the majority – into accepting his proposals. But in doing so Cameron will create a less liberal and tolerant society. Those who have held fast to their principles, will have to accept what the majority wants. But will the majority respect what the minority believes in? Not in Cameron’s Britain, they won’t. The moment the vicar or priest refuses to celebrate a gay marriage in their church, the aggrieved couple will see them in court — in Strasbourg. Here, at the European Court of Human Rights, Christians will once again be thrown to the lions as their opponents will strive to set a precedent: equal rights means equal access to religious marriage ceremony. Anyone who stands in a gay couple’s way will be persecuted by the law (and those strident gay rights lobbyists who tolerate only those who see everything their way.)

But that was Cristina Odone in 2012. The Odone of 2014 has this to say, in her most recent column for the Telegraph:

I have written before about my fear that legalising gay marriage would affect the special status of marriage as a sacred institution. I have argued that once gay people could demand to be married, believers who refused to open their churches or even church halls to the ceremony would be punished. But Putin’s homophobic measures have changed my mind. If I oppose gay marriage I may be seen as condoning his anti-gay campaign. I couldn’t live with that.

She rightly goes on to rake Vladimir Putin over the coals for his opportunistic and divisive decision to shore up his political position by focusing attention on gay people as the new “enemy within”:

Putin will continue to pursue this hateful campaign because it strikes a nasty populist chord. Sadly it would seem that his supporters are not just in Russia but abroad, too: Putin ranks as number three most admired world figure, ahead of Pope Francis. Why? because Putin has manoeuvred himself to be the crusader against “the other” – in the shape of immigrants, alternative lifestyles, and above all gays. He has driven a fault line through 21st-century culture. On one side, there are the Russian leader and his supporters, who believe gays are fair game for abuse. On the other side are gays – vilified and beaten –  and those who oppose their persecution. Putin is forcing us all to choose between him and his victims. I cannot stand with Putin.

Good. But think for a moment about the logic (or startling lack thereof) behind this statement. Cristina Odone apparently inhabits a world where deeply held personal convictions are no longer something to be defended through reasoned, intellectual debate and changed only in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary. In this world, beliefs and opinions are instead chopped and changed as they wax and wane in popularity or inevitability, and can be picked up or discarded according to the reputation or behaviour of other people who hold them.

Always believed in low taxes, but just found out that a prominent individual got caught engaging in tax evasion? No problem, simply join the Labour Party and clamour for a mansion tax, because believing in low taxation is no longer fashionable. More horrific revelations in the media about the coverup of child abuse in your local Catholic diocese? Why not convert to Buddhism for a nice refreshing change, surely everyone loves a Buddhist?

The ease with which one can pick apart Odone’s reasoning does not mean that we should not be pleased at the end result. We can be delighted with the destination if still somewhat puzzled by the winding, circuitous route taken on the journey to reach it. But as someone who has long opposed gay marriage and full equality for gay people in Britain, I think Cristina Odone owes us a peek at the Google (or perhaps more likely Apple) Map routing that led her to this strange new place.

To publicly change a staunchly-held position on a major issue such as gay marriage without providing a line-by-line or argument-by-argument account of the evolution in her thinking is intellectually lazy, and significantly detracts from the impact of Odone’s announcement. That is bad for her personal credentials as a thinker and a writer, but it also denies equal marriage supporters the propaganda victory that could then take their argument further.

Until recently, Cristina Odone was thundering that the sanctioning gay marriage represented the “tyranny of the majority” and the end of religious liberty for anyone of faith. And yet she now supports gay marriage. So either her fears of tyranny and oppression were unfounded – in which case admitting as much would be the only intellectually rigorous and honest thing to do – or she considers aiding and abetting the onset of tyranny to be a small price to pay in exchange for preserving her reputation as a national newspaper columnist who does not want to be associated with a homophobic foreign regime.

Which is it?

The uneasy thought remains that perhaps Odone’s column was not intended seriously, and is simply the journalistic equivalent of throwing her toys out of the pram at being discredited by association with the likes of Vladimir Putin. We should certainly pay careful attention to her pronouncements on gay marriage once the Sochi Winter Olympics are over and the attention fades on Russia’s regressive attitude toward homosexuality.

Changing your mind on dodgy or unexplained pretexts once is cause for notice and concern. But if it were to happen twice on the same issue – if Odone should decide to backtrack on her words once Vladimir Putin is no longer commanding world attention and making her look bad – it would pose a very serious question as to why anyone should continue paying attention to anything she writes or says at all.

Let’s hope that Cristina Odone’s defection is the real thing, and not just a tactical ruse.