LGBT Rights in Russia and our Western Fantasies

image

If we truly believe in human rights, then we do not elevate the rights of certain people as totemic of liberalness. It means we must support the human rights of ‘enemies’ in war. It means we support the human rights of rioters and criminals and Daily Mail columnists and homophobes and Muslims. I of course want to support governments that promote human rights but it is a messy business and actions speak infinitely louder than words. We must never allow rhetoric around gay rights to be allowed to obscure other human rights violations or render criticism mute.

The above is from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about the response to a speech Clinton gave which ‘promoted gay rights around the world’. The overwhelmingly positive reaction (and concomitant presentation of America as a champion of ‘human rights’) neatly illustrated some problematic aspects of ‘LGBT rights’, not least the tendency for them to be viewed as separate from (even superior to)general human rights. At times it can seem like liberal Westerners are like laser-guided drones, zooming around the world in order to pinpoint abuses (perceived or real) against LGBT people (and really we’re overwhelmingly talking about the ‘G’ here.) We get petitions about Uganda, inaccurately attributed photographs about Iran and demands to cut Western aid to ‘anti-gay’ countries and in each case the engagement never progresses beyond the facile. There are no efforts to understand the wider context, few efforts to engage with activists who actually live and operate in the countries in question and certainly no consideration of Western complicity and/or hypocrisy. The simple narrative goes “LGBT rights are being abused somewhere, as Westerners we can do something about it”. And that’s it. You don’t have to ponder this for long for the ‘white saviour’, imperialist and orientalist fantasies to make themselves obvious.

We’ve been seeing this again recently as the noise around Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens grows louder, culminating this week in a New York Times column from Harvey Fierstein and a Buzzfeed ‘article’. Seriously, when you’re sharing Buzzfeed pieces to highlight human rights abuses you should probably have the self-awareness to step back. Now, the situation in Russia is clearly worrying and shouldn’t be ignored. The introduction of such a law on a national level and a law effectively banning LGBT activism have drawn Western attention. However while this marks a deterioration in LGBT rights in Russia, the situation has been troubling for quite some time with various regions of Russia bringing in laws prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ over the past decade.  More than that, the human rights situation in Russia has been dreadful for many years. Even if we only look at the past month or so, we see a law criminalising blasphemy, the murder of journalists, the persecution and imprisonment of political opponents to the regime, the harassment and murder of human rights activists and extradition and torture. Russia has not been a functioning democracy, or respected human rights, since well before Putin came along. Yet it’s the LGBT issues which are seized on and lead to demands to boycott the country and the Winter Olympics. As is almost always the case, these calls for boycotts don’t seem to have arisen after discussions with activists in Russia over how best to proceed but have rather been imposed on high by Westerners, many of whom have clearly never set foot in Russia.

There’s a lot to be untangled here. There’s the question of whether a country which had its own ‘homosexual propaganda’ law until fairly recently really has the moral authority to be lecturing another on its treatment of LGBT people, of course. There’s the small matter that LGBT people are far from equal and far from free of homophobia in most Western countries. Yet as the wonderful Scott Long notes in this great piece, attacks on LGBT people in Western democracies tend to be portrayed as aberrations rather than being evidence of the daily hell faced by all LGBT people. There’s also the detail that the West has played a massive role in establishing and/or supporting regimes with appalling records on LGBT rights. This obviously brings to mind both the legacy of colonialism and the many repressive regimes which have Britain and America’s sticky fingers all over them but there’s also soft power. For example the One Campaign, which Bono credits as saving 9 million lives in Africa, opened the door to American evangelicals whose influence permeates (for example) the homophobic actions of the Ugandan government.

Then there is the tension between LGBT rights and ‘human rights’ which I wrote about in the piece first linked to above. It’s with neat symmetry that the Youth Olympics are to be held in China next year, as the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008. The wider LGBT community never joined in calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and there are pretty much no calls for a boycott of the Youth ones, yet China is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. As Russia’s human rights record has only become of interest once it was seen to be targeting gay people, China’s perceived lack of laws targeting the same means their appalling human rights record is of little interest to people like Harvey Fierstein. Indeed, our own Olympics last year brought their fair share of authoritarianism and abuse, from ‘pre-arrests’ and forced evictions to exploitation of migrant workers and the prohibition of political protest. Yet speaking about these as a British person was seen as ‘grumbling’ and ‘negative’.

It’s this inability or flat-out refusal to look at our own human rights records first which most grates. Russia has human rights activists and they lead their fights, sometimes apparently with notable success. We should be so brave. Before being so eager to point out the problematic human rights of countries we perceive as lesser we should take a look at ourselves and our allies. It’s not without irony that Edward Snowden looks likely to be given at least a temporary Russian visa as he flees America’s persecution of whistle-blowers which is most notably represented by Bradley Manning (one of whose heroes is Harvey Milk). It is without irony that we condemn Russia for locking up Pussy Riot for ‘criticising the government’. The massive abuses of our national security agencies exposed by Snowden, both in America and here, have been met with nary a whimper by most people despite their enormous implications for our democracies.  We rightly applaud the bravery of Malala Yousafzai yet are utterly silent about the (at least) hundreds of children murdered by Western (mostly but not solely American) drone strikes. The American government has even assassinated its own citizens and it hasn’t inspired much of an outcry. We turn a blind eye to our government’s support for Israel and its brutal oppression of Palestine.  We shriek about the authoritarianism of Russia while the insanity of Guantanamo continues for yet another year and our own government destroys legal aid and sets up secret courts. Yet Fierstein declares that he has “a lot of faith in Obama”. Where is his concern for the human rights of those affected by his own government? From Trayvon Martin to Gareth Myatt, Jimmy Mubenga to Mark Duggan and beyond, our ‘liberal’ Western societies are riven with abuses. We wouldn’t expect activists in Russia to deal with any of these problems yet have no compunction about wading into their country without even speaking to them first. What these cases show is that ‘human rights’ are not experienced by all in the same way. They are always contested and always must be fought for and this requires that we pay some attention to our own societies first and foremost rather than indulging in liberal fantasies that we’re well-placed to start dotting around the world solving the problems which our governments and NGOs often have had a huge role in to begin with. 

08-08-2013: This blog was getting a lot of hits yesterday which I’ve no doubt was due to Stephen Fry’s ‘open letter’ about Russia going viral. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned it’s pretty much a perfect illustration of some of the issues I wrote about here. It’s almost entirely about him, for a start. He finds no space to quote or even refer to voices from within Russia, despite having visited there last year. He surely can’t be unaware, for example, that LGBT activists in Russia have actually spoken out against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics? If you’re directly contradicting the wishes of activists actually living in the country you profess to speak for, you better have a compelling reason. Fry doesn’t even begin to offer one.

Furthermore, he contrasts Russia with the ‘civilised world’ and ends with an obsequious tribute to David Cameron:

I especially appeal to you, Prime Minister, a man for whom I have the utmost respect. As the leader of a party I have for almost all of my life opposed and instinctively disliked, you showed a determined, passionate and clearly honest commitment to LGBT rights and helped push gay marriage through both houses of our parliament in the teeth of vehement opposition from so many of your own side. For that I will always admire you, whatever other differences may lie between us. In the end I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right. Please act on that instinct now.

“I believe you know when a thing is wrong or right”. Clearly this is not a man affected by the government’s ‘austerity’ programme and his words elide the many struggles occurring in the United Kingdom. Yet even looking beyond the myriad of injustices wrought by this government, we see that only this week Cameron entertained the King of Bahrain, a truly brutal dictatorship. A brutal dictatorship which is sold arms by the United Kingdom. Funnily enough, we also sell arms to Russia. “The civilised world”. The situation in Yemen is similarly sold to us as a battle between “the civilised world” and the barbarians – a narrative which obscures the complex and morally abhorrent truth.

Fry’s words further cement the myth that the people of Russia are voiceless, less-than-human and need saving by the eloquent, ‘civilised’ West. They act as propaganda for Cameron and the West and insult the many activists here who are fighting their own struggles against the government. And all for an action which there seems to be little call for from within Russia, and which the only Russian LGBT activists whose words we can find oppose. Western fantasies, indeed.

Drone

I have to say that the drone strikes and the targeted killing program have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen. In some areas of Yemen, the anger against America that results from the strikes makes it dangerous for me to even acknowledge having visited America, much less testify how much my life changed thanks to the State Department scholarships. It’s sometimes too dangerous to even admit that I have American friends. Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us – out of sight and making a strange humming noise – was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone. I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship in America. My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants. Even worse, I know it  will make people like Al-Radmi look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.


Testimony from Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee: Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on April 23rd 2013. The subject was the ‘Drone Wars’ and al-Muslimi spoke about how the drones were radicalising many in Yemen; as he put it, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” His words are an important counterpoint to what we are and will read in the media regarding what’s happening in Yemen right now. Drone strikes are only against “alleged al-Qaida members”. The Guardian reports that AQAP is the regular target of drone strikes”. You will read little about how it’s been reported by prominent officials that all military-aged males are automatically classed as combatants (a claim which sparked such outrage that the administration has since back-tracked without ever properly addressing it) or that attacks are often made on the basis of circumstantial evidence with little real knowledge about who is being targeted. You won’t read much about the children killed by drone strikes or about the American citizens assassinated by drones.

No, instead you will read reams about Al-Qaida in Yemen and the atrocities they commit.

Madonna at GLAAD

No one would doubt Madonna’s commitment to gay rights but more importantly, few would doubt that she’s an archetypal American liberal. This is underlined in this speech to GLAAD, the American body which is widely seen (outwith American liberal circles, anyway) as the hobby horse of privileged white men. The American version of Stonewall, if you will, and as such hugely averse to radicalism and any meaningful discussion of inequality and the use of power. Madonna’s speech pushes all the right buttons in this regard: the American enemies of the great and the good gathered in the room are religious bigots who fixate on sexuality; some truth to this, of course, but neatly feeding the sense of victimisation which many of these people thrive on while obscuring wider and more complex inequalities.

If Madonna had restricted her comments to the Boy Scouts and religious bigotry in America, however, there would have been little wrong with this speech. Where it becomes worthy of criticism is when she moves onto the wider world with some banal but damaging observations on inequality and oppression. Israeli apartheid becomes a question of two mothers sitting down to speak to each other, the pervasive and pernicious fiction that the conflict is one of two equal ‘sides’ rather than one of oppressor and oppressed. Worse, there is a throwaway reference to “an Iranian gay man being hanged for falling in love with a man.” This is a favoured trope of liberals, even in situations where there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and it is unforgivable as it serves to increase the drumbeat for ‘intervention’ in Iran while completely ignoring America’s own complicity in and hypocrisy regarding the Iranian regime (and indeed support of regimes seen to be even more oppressive).

The reference to Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban at first seems straightforwardly ‘good’ – who could have an issue with this, after all? Yet it undeniably further serves American fantasies of promoting equality and justice in the world against dangerous, dark, barbaric enemies. It’s easy to be horrified when the Taliban attempt to kill a child – it’s braver to use your platform to draw attention to your own government murdering hundreds (at least) of children with its drone strikes and sanctions.

Indeed, the sense that you should hold your own government to account before deigning to wag your finger at others looms large in one inexcusable omission from Madonna’s speech. She speaks of Putin and Pussy Riot – again, a worthy cause but one which flatters Western notions of superiority. It is ‘insane’, she says, that Pussy Riot have been locked up ‘because they criticised the government’. Further, she notes that she doesn’t ‘know many brave people’ and draws attention to the line in ‘Nobody Knows Me’ which observes that “it’s so hard to find someone to admire”. You have to wonder, then, if Madonna (and indeed GLAAD) is aware of Chelsea Manning, a truly brave American who has spent over 1000 days in prison and faced torture precisely because she wanted to draw attention to her government’s horrendous abuses of its power. I’ve written before about the silence of ‘Gay Inc’ on Manning and it is truly inexcusable for this room to loudly whoop and applaud their sense of righteousness over Pussy Riot while they continue to turn a blind eye to their own government’s persecution of someone who courageously spoke up. It’s possible to go further still, as Glenn Greenwald does here in a piece on Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was subject to extrajudicial assassination (ie murder) by the CIA. Greenwald argues that:

What prompted my opposition from the start to the attempted killing of Awlaki was that it was very clear he was being targeted because of his anti-American sermons that were resonating among English-speaking Muslim youth (sermons which, whatever you think of them, are protected by the First Amendment), and not because he was a Terrorist operative. In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government’s policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare. (my emphasis)

You may have to read that a few times to fully take in its shocking message – one which completely demolishes liberal fantasies of a superior, secular America which can afford to cast its eye over the abuses of other governments and find them wanting.

Predictably, Madonna’s speech is proving popular with many; it’s being described as ‘courting controversy’ and ‘brave’. Yet what was difficult or shocking about it? It flattered the egos of everyone present, assuring them that they were on the side of ‘right’ and ‘good’ while still facing oppression from wicked religious people. The man the speech honoured is a mainstream journalist who waited until he was firmly embedded at the top of his profession before choosing to come out and there seems to be little that is truly ‘brave’ about his overwhelmingly conventional views. What would have been truly brave, truly shocking, truly controversial, would be if Madonna had challenged the smug complacency of GLAAD and, indeed, of the wider American liberalism and exceptionalism which she so perfectly embodies.

EDIT – A response to this blog I’ve had several times now is for people to state that the differences between Pussy Riot and Manning are obvious; that the former case is clear-cut and indefensible while the second is ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’. The first point to be made here is that within Russia, the Pussy Riot case isn’t remotely clear-cut. It is in fact as ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’ as these people present the Manning case as being. A cursory Google of Russian public opinion on the case will reveal this. Following on from that, the second point is that the reasons these cases are so disputed in their countries of origin are worth focusing on in themselves. As this piece puts it:

There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see her as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on her. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound.  On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor. (my emphasis)

Indeed, the fact that the one line repeatedly wheeled out to me is that Manning ‘put American lives at risk’ would tend to confirm the notion that people are blindly parroting what the authorities have told them.

The third and most crucial point is that support for freedom of expression, for freedom of conscience, for opposition to government and for bravery in opposing and exposing its abuses means nothing if it must be uncontroversial and widely accepted. This is precisely why I write above that Madonna’s speech served the dominant narratives of power – it is both fed by and feeds ideas and causes which are acceptable to the American liberal ‘elite’. The idea that raising the cause of Manning would have been too ‘controversial’ is to argue that no-one should ever make a meaningful stand for justice. There is never a ‘time and a place’ for that – that’s kind of the point in calling such actions ‘brave’.