You can’t argue with that.
It was with no little irony that, only days after I wrote on Barclays’ use of Pride to pinkwash its image, the bank was accused once again of corruption and fraud. Strangely, Barclays’ Twitter account failed to mention this. They’re probably too busy loving gays:
They’re pink. Do you see what they did there?
This brilliant piece by @spitzenprodukte succinctly captured how (and why) Pride lost its way. Cleverly inverting the usual claim that the event is no longer political, he wrote that:
…’Pride in London’ will continue to support the values of the police and the establishment; the supremacy of property rights, marriage, the oppression and othering of people of colour, and racist attitudes towards foreign cultures. It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.
There is perhaps no greater illustration of Pride serving ‘the dominant ideology’ than the presence of arms dealer BAE Systems on the parade (covered by at least one other blogger this week). The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has good material on BAE where you can learn, for example, how it helped the despots in Bahrain crack down on pro-democracy protestors. This ‘crack down’ (a euphemism if ever there was one) led to over 90 deaths and the widespread use of torture. You can also read about BAE’s close ties to the regime in Saudi Arabia – by all accounts one of the most authoritarian and brutal governments in the world. It should be no surprise that LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia are dire, given that human and LGBT rights should be synonymous. As Pride reveals, however, mainstream LGBT politics is lacking any incisive notion of human rights and is easily swayed towards targets which serve the dominant ideology – as evidenced by the sound and fury over Russia compared to the relative silence on Western ‘allies’ such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (the latter two also being countries where BAE’s bloody prints are to be found).
The response from Pride regarding this (take from Symon Hill’s blog linked above) is extraordinary:
Organisations apply and BAE have an LGBT group. Change can come from within. We will not abandon and disengage with LGBT groups who strive for the right and the freedom to express themselves
‘Change can from from within’? What does that even mean?! These people work for an arms dealer. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Pride wasn’t basing that response on any concrete evidence that BAE’s LGBT group have an agenda to make their arms dealer a bit nicer(!) but were rather grasping at straws. They become even more offensive when they speak of not being willing to ‘abandon and disengage’, as if the employees of BAE Systems are oppressed rather than being part of an oppressor. We will not ‘abandon and disengage’ with this arms dealer as they continue to profit from death, torture and destruction – some of them are LGBT! It beggars belief.
Of course, one central staple of the modern LGBT movement in countries like the UK is that most of the real problems are over there. It my be selective in the countries it fixates on, but the finger tends to be pointed firmly away from ourselves. As such there is no real pressure to consider the role of a company like BAE Systems in violating basic human rights. There is certainly no pressure to consider our own foreign policy and the role of our armed forces, who are also marching on the parade. In fact, the Pride site proudly trumpets:
28th June is also Armed Forces Day, and once again we are delighted and honoured to have members of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force marching in the Parade.
This can easily be seen as part of the continuing militarisation of our civic life where an oppressively infantile attitude towards ‘OUR BRAVE BOYS’ becomes ever more unavoidable – witness Labour’s absolutely abhorrent plans to make ‘abuse’ of the armed forces a ‘hate crime’. This serves to shut down critical discussion of our foreign policy and the role of the military in it, as well as examinations of the military itself (e.g. the systemic reports of sexual harassment, assault and rape). Vron Ware’s entire Up In Arms series looking at these issues is essential reading.
Looking at the pressures to blankly cheer aggressve authority leads neatly to the presence of the MET Police on the Pride march. For a certain kind of Pride attendee, the MET will undoubtedly be the friendly face of ‘law and order’ in London – the nice people who come and help when you’ve been burgled, the attractive officer they send to ‘liaise’ with the LGBT community in Soho bars. Yet, somewhat ironically, if Pride were to have more explicitly political (and anti-establishment) aims you can be certain that the MET would not be marching but rather aggressively policing it as part of their efforts to intimidate and delegitimise protest. These efforts, lest we forget, have seen the police brutalise students and even kill innocent (not that it should matter) bystanders.
An awareness that policing is not some apolitical, neutral institution should be central to Pride which, after all, marks the anniversary of the riots against police which are iconically known as ‘Stonewall’. The radicalism of that event, and the fundamentally key role played in it by people of colour, trans people and sex workers, has been erased over time (look no further than the timid conservatism of the charity named after it). It’s highly relevant that the MET Police remains institutionally racist to the core – the view not of some cranky blogger but of itsown people. It is only a few months since the inquest verdict on the murder of Mark Duggan revealed the racist faultlines of the UK and shone some light on our racist policing. There is also transphobia, continuing persecution of sex workers and widespread misogyny. The police’s role as an aggressive enforcer and defender of the state is clear, from its spying through its attacks on squatting to its complete lack of accountability for its brutality. In short, unless you’re a comfortable white cis male with no urge to protest or rock the boat in any way, you have no reason to cheer a police force which is unaccountable and out of control.
These are three of the most egregious examples of Pride’s service to the ‘dominant ideology’ but other Pride participants are like a who’s who in fraud, tax avoidance and other unethical behaviour: Citibank, PWC, Microsoft, Deloitte,Vodafone, BP, RBS, KPMG. The conduct of each could be examined on its own but, as Losing Pride argues, their presence at Pride is testament to its transformation from a radical liberation movement which explicitly linked LGBT rights to wider social justice into one where visibility within injustice is an end in itself. And so:
Once you have reached the bar of being out and proud, any further structural or material concerns are a private matter, and unrelated to your sexual identity or politics.
And you can be certain that this will be the response of many to these concerns: what BAE Systems and co actually do is irrelevant, what matters is that LGBT people can be represented within them. Aside from being anathema to the foundations of Pride, this attitude is both fed by and feeds into the atomisation, individualisation and depoliticising which characterises modern capitalism. Legal ‘equality’ within a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist system which relies on the immiseration of the majority of humanity is no equality worth marching for. Rather than providing pinkwashing in return for some money, Pride should be a safe space of radical awakening. The links between LGBT liberation and wider social justice should be writ large and we should actively oppose the continued (and hypocritical) use of LGBT bodies and identity by companies which demonstrate time after time after time that their profit comes before human dignity.
If it wasn’t already basic Marketing 101, I could swear that Barclays had a strategy document hidden away somewhere with a title like ‘Pinkwashing: It’s Piss Easy’. I’ve written a few times previously about their involvement with Stonewall, who seem happy to get into bed with any company which bats an eyelash at them even if its commitment is somewhat half-hearted. This week saw Barclays’ use of the LGBT community to bolster its image reach new depths with the launch of an advertising campaign built around its sponsorship of London Pride. Its Spectrum group, dedicated to ‘diversity and inclusion’, has been encouraging the use of #FreedomTo on social media and merrily tweeting images like these:
I find it interesting that any explicit reference to or portrayal of LGBT people on these adverts is muted – in fact, it would be easy enough to entirely miss that this was an LGBT-focused campaign rather than some generic, asinine message. This is particularly noticeable in their risible ‘GAYTMs’:
What are these?! I fail to see how sub-Hallmark sentiments written on some terrible patterns which have escaped from adorning bus seats suggest ‘LGBT Pride’ in any way whatsoever. And yet they’ve inspired adoring responses:
— Nikki (@NikSpalding) June 19, 2014
— Maciek Zielinski (@magicme84) June 19, 2014
— PinkDotSG (@PinkDotSG) June 19, 2014
— OUTintheUK (@OUTintheUK) June 19, 2014
It doesn’t stop there. If looking at insipid messages, terrible graphic design and portrayals of LGBT life which wouldn’t scare the most virulent homophobe don’t make you proud enough you can actually adorn yourself in some marketing:
— Martin Kmiecik (@MrMartinK89) June 19, 2014
As space hijackers tweeted, what was once a riot is now a “contactless adventure”! Branding yourself in this way even seems to get you access to a ‘private’ area of Pride in Golden Square, something listed on both the Pride and‘bpay’ sites but with no further information provided. Possibly because an area reserved for people who prostrate themselves before a corporate sponsor isn’t exactly in keeping with the radical origins of Pride.
Not that Barclays, or Pride, would know it. The exchange beneath this tweet is illuminating. When someone complains that this branding is ‘not in the spirit of Pride’, Barclays responds that the event couldn’t even happen ‘without the financial support of Corporates”. The Pride account then chips in, saying that “only corporate sponsorship” allows the event to have “a unique meaning for everyone who comes along”. To complete the unholy triumvirate, an employee of Stonewall pops up to insist that “corporate support is vital to pride” and enquire as to how else it would be funded. The message is clear – the ungrateful oink who deigned to question the corporate branding of Pride should shut up. Barclays are doing the queers a favour! The fact that Pride events happened without such sponsorship for many years, and continue to happen today, is presumably irrelevant. The notion that Pride could have an ethical sponsorship policy is ludicrous because…reasons. Even more absurd is the idea that Pride probably doesn’t really need a series of stages (costing in excess of £200,000) featuring a bunch of terrible acts no-one has heard of. Lest we forget, Pride is held around the anniversary of the Stonewall riots (bang on the day this year, in fact). It rather sticks in the craw that this event, commonly held to be the beginning of the modern radical LGBT liberation movement, is now an excuse for a company as mired in scandal, sleaze and immorality as Barclays to apply an easy gloss to its image. Any doubt that this is the main purpose behind their sponsorship should be put to rest by this odious interview in the Evening Standard, which glosses over “slashing jobs or preserving sky-high pay” to provide a Pride-based platform for the Barclays CEO to trumpet the company’s “ethical dimension” and its ‘diversity’. That’s quite handy just weeks after you’ve announced the sacking of almost 20,000 people. It’s handy when your bank has been the single largest supporter of the arms trade in the UK sector, profiting from the support and sale of arms to not-exactly-LGBT-friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Uganda and supporting the manufacture of drones. It helps in avoiding unfortunate questions about your bank’s seemingly endless scandals, from Libor to money-laundering/sanction-busting to unwarranted bonuses to helping cause and profiting from the hunger and malnutrition of millions. Barclays is no friend of the LGBT community. It’s no friend of most of humanity. We owe it no gratitude and we certainly owe no loyalty to Pride in assisting with its pinkwashing. Instead, let’s in a small but meaningful way show them that we value the roots of Pride. We value liberation for everyone and will not allow our dignity to be commodified in the name of an abhorrent bank. The #freedomto say ‘not in our name’ is where real pride lies.
Barclays have the #freedomto conduct fraud on a massive scale.
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
Barclays have the #freedomto drive up food prices to make more profit at the expense of the lives of the world’s poorest.
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
Barclays has #freedomto invest more in arms trade than any other UK bank, profiting from death & aiding authoritarian (& homophobic) regimes
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
Barclays has the #freedomto break sanctions against regimes like Iran, Sudan and Burma
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
Barclays has the #freedomto profit from money laundering for those involved in the drugs trade and terrorism.
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
Oh I can’t not mention that Barclays had the #freedomto support South Africa’s apartheid regime and fund Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.
— How Upsetting (@How_Upsetting) June 19, 2014
“The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles.”
It is accepted now that HIV originated in Africa and first made the leap to humans (from primates) in the 1930s. One of earliest known cases of human infection appears to be a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1959. It’s suggested that the DRC was, in the 1970s, the location of the first AIDS epidemic – one that was largely heterosexually-spread. HIV and AIDS then spread throughout the African continent from where, researchers suggest, it travelled to Haiti and then entered the ‘northern’ countries such as the USA. Dr Jacques Pépin has argued (read this link – it’s truly fascinating) that the global spread of HIV owes much to colonial rule in Africa.
The first ‘official’ case of HIV/AIDS in the USA has been retrospectively claimed as Robert Rayford, an African-American teenager from Missouri who died in 1969. It’s also been suggested that Ardouin Antonio, a Haitian man who died in Manhattan in 1959, could have been one of the first cases in the northern hemisphere. By 1981, when Dr Michael Gottlieb and his team identified what would soon come to be known as AIDS, there were already many thousands infected in the USA.
You will notice in the quote at the start that Dr Gottlieb recalls the first five cases he identified were in white men, while the next four consisted of people of colour. HIV/AIDS, of course, primarily affected men who had sex with men in countries like the USA (although doctors also reported the condition as present in intravenous drug users and their children in 1981.) What’s relevant here is that over 40% of the people reported as having AIDS in the initial period (1981-1987) of what we now know as the AIDS crisis were non-white.
As you may have gathered by the picture at the top, I was caused to think about and revisit this history by the broadcast (in the USA) of The Normal Heart, HBO’s Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the Larry Kramer play which was one of the first works to directly address the crisis. There has been a fair bit of advance publicity for this movie, due in large part to the veritable galaxy of stars appearing in it (and of course Murphy’s Glee/American Horror Story successes). I don’t think it’s being overly cynical to say that it has ‘award season’ written all over it, and the critical response has been predictably positive. I thought it was alright: it felt overlong and Murphy’s direction was all over the place but it’s fairly efficient as the polemic it’s clearly intended to be. It was impossible for me not to notice, however, that in the decades since the 1985 play was written much of its scenes have passed into the realm of cliche. You can’t fault Kramer for that, of course, but if you’ve seen any major drama or film about AIDS (almost always set in America) you’ll find much of this film very familiar.
This in turn, then, led to the observation that these dramas keep telling the same stories: those of white gay men. The gimmick of the recent, much-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club was that the main character was straight but even that felt the need to throw in Jared Leto as a white Jiminy Cricket-esque transexual sidekick (to ‘represent’ the LGBT community, apparently). During The Normal Heart I started to notice that, amongst the cast of implausibly attractive, uncommonly famous actors there was barely a non-white face to be found and only one significant female character. A black man sometimes pops up in the background of what is supposed to be Gay Men’s Health Crisis but I don’t recall him having any lines, while a woman who is heavily implied to be lesbian shows up to volunteer and then is quickly forgotten.
Kramer was clearly writing from his own perspective here and GMHC was indeed set up by six white men. It’s churlish to complain about that, especially when these men definitely deserve to be remembered. Yet I feel uneasy at the narrative the film pushes, one which fits neatly into that already told in most of the famous AIDS dramas you can think of. It’s a narrative where HIV/AIDS and the activism surrounding it is seen to belong almost entirely to white men (who don’t even have non-white lovers, despite living in cities like New York) in rich countries. It’s also one where the radicalism offered is of a peculiarly blinkered kind.
There’s no better way to explain what I mean by that last comment than to link to the words of Sarah Schulman and Roberto Vazquez-Pacheo. Both former members of the radical group ACT-UP, they provide some valuable context which is almost entirely missing not only from aforementioned AIDS dramas but even most of the documentaries I’ve seen about the period. Schulman writes here about the make-up of the group:
There were all different kinds of people who joined ACT UP. Most of the women were already politically active because they’d been trained in the feminist movement. There were some men who came from the gay liberation movement, who also were radicals and had experience. There were people who came from the left. There were people who had been in the Black Panther party, but they had been in the closet. There was a guy who’d been in the Nicaraguan revolution, he had been in the closet as well. Jeff Gates. He died.
But the vast majority were gay men who had never been politicized. Some of them were everything from wall street brokers, to party boys, to quiet men living at home… they didn’t know anything about politics.
The clear picture here is that queer politics existed prior to AIDS activism and it intersected with other political movements which fought for liberation and against power. For his part Vazquez-Pacheco speaks not only of the tensions raised by being a man of colour in a group dominated by white people but of class. The ‘professional middle-class’ white guys felt betrayed by the system they had ‘grew up with’ but felt it could be ‘repaired’, having to be educated as to how that system had never served many of the non-white, non-male, non-professional groups affected by HIV/AIDS.
You can see this all over films such as The Normal Heart and Dallas Buyers Club, which present the awakening political conscious of men affected by HIV/AIDs but don’t really go any further than that. It remains a single-issue cause dominated by said men seeking to wrest some concessions from the white men in power. The politics of Dallas Buyers Club is particularly dubious in that it presents a straight white man unleashing the entreprenurial power of capitalism to combat lumbering, inefficent vested interests (healthcare and government) and helping the simpering queers while he’s at it – there is a single scene which acknowledges the radical activism which was taking place at the time. We’re presented with the veneer of radicalism (pretty much the sole reason for Jared Leto’s character existing, aside from providing some tragedy) when the story actually tells us that the system works if you make enough noise for long enough.
There is certainly no consideration of global politics, poverty and power structures. In all of these stories Africa is an irrelevant abstraction and AIDS has descended upon its northern victims like a sudden plague from God. It’s no surprise, then, that while the dramas/documentaries will usually draw attention to global HIV/AIDS figures there will be little to no attempts made to present the wider reality of the situation. Even in the USA, non-white people made up a majority of HIV/AIDS cases by the early 90s and today black/African-Americans make up the vast majority of new diagnoses. Factors like poverty and access to health care have been clearly linked to HIV rates while Against Equality have documented how (for example) these issues intersect with race in the prison industrial complex. Worldwide, almost 70% of HIV/AIDS cases are found in Africa while North America/Western Europe, which all of the portrayals focus on, accounts for less than 7%.
So what, some people will say – most of these depictions are made in North America/Western Europe and these stories deserve to be told. It’s inevitable that some will take this blog as an attempt to downplay the carnage caused by HIV/AIDS to men who have sex with men in the north. This isn’t intended at all. Rather, I think these depictions matter in framing HIV/AIDS as a currently existing problem and how we approach it. For example, Dallas Buyers Club is premised upon a man illegally buying drugs to treat HIV – a situation which not only is hugely relevant to healthcare access in so-called ‘privileged’ countries but which clearly parallels the issues surrounding big pharma monopolies on drugs in Africa. The Normal Heart, meanwhile, pushes the buttons of a certain audience (HBO is a premium cable channel) and keeps alive the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay professional men. It’s not disrespectful to those who have died or to those who have fought to acknowledge that the fight isn’t the same. It’s largely not about us any more, even when numbers of us continue to be infected and even when we need to organise and fight against the austerity which cuts HIV/AIDS treatments.
That’s why I think it’s important to present the reality of HIV/AIDS and stop the erasure of non-white men from its story – it’s perhaps the most powerful way to build solidarity with those afflicted elsewhere in the world (and our own countries) and make us begin to realise that their situation is intricately connected with our own. HIV/AIDS is not so much an individual problem which can be solved by a noble men or men obtaining concessions from those in power as a systemic one. I think understanding it on that level fundamentally alters our response to it.
Beginning to question these connections and even how countries like the USA may benefit from them is part of a real modern-day radicalism, not getting dewy-eyed over a rose-tinted period of activism performed by actors who will reap not only awards but the plaudits of a world which continues to see these portrayals as terribly ‘brave’ (in itself a homophobic response).
The main character of The Normal Heart says early on “I hate that we play victim when many of us, most of us, don’t have to.” It’s a complacency which is quickly shattered and becoming a real victim fills him with an incandescent rage. You can never fake such a rage because you can never fake experiencing horrific oppression and nor should we ever try to. We shouldn’t and cannot downplay the fights which need to be fought but these have never been solely about sexuality and we cannot forget that. We cannot forget that our liberation is always to be found linked in feminism, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-colonialism. It’s for this reason that it’s so desperately important that the stories of ‘The Next Four’, and all they can be seen to represent who came before and since, are told.
I noted in this piece that Pink News were holding an award ceremony sponsored by an arms dealer – a perfect illustration both of ‘pinkwashing’ and of the conservative, even reactionary agenda of Pink News and its particular brand of ‘politics’. More details about this ceremony are starting to come out, with the first award apparently being “Parliamentary Speech of the Year’. What this actually means is ‘Parliamentary Speech In Favour of Gay Marriage During the Gay Marriage Debate of the Year’ because of course LGBT people couldn’t care about or be affected by anything else which goes on. Why would we care, for example, that Baroness Barker has collaborated with the Tories and her own party leadership to undermine the NHS? It’s not a ‘gay issue’, is it? More egregiously, why would we care that Mike Freer is a true blue Tory who has supported his party in almost everything that they’ve done, from attacking the NHS to attempting to dismantle legal aid or raising tuition fees to £9000 (to name but a few flashpoint issues)? Even by its own narrow criteria the award is a non-starter – Lord Jenkin of Roding, when he bothered to vote on LGBT issues, voted against the repeal of section 28 and supported an amendment effectively specifying that IVF be available only to heterosexual couples (to his credit, he did rebel against his party and vote to allow unmarried couples to adopt.) David Lammy, supporter of the Iraq war and authoritarian government laws to tackle ‘terrorism’, seems to be nominated because he compared gay marriage to the American black civil rights movement – a comparison which offends many and which raises the gay movement’s own troubling treatment (or avoidance) of race.
I’ve no doubt this will seem quibbling to some who will find a gay site giving an award for a speech on a gay issue perfectly natural. Yet it’s completely arbitrary and yet again pushes this facile notion of ‘gay politics’ as something separate from ‘politics’ in general; worse, it pushes it as something which reflects the narrow concerns of an elite who already have a place at the table. That there are LGBT people out there who are being affected by, and will care more about, cuts to welfare or cuts to health or unemployment or homelessness et al is viewed as irrelevant here. That LGB members of parliament will have spoken on these issues is also irrelevant. Screw solidarity and political consciousness, we’re GAY and as such should care about GAY THINGS!
This approach of course underlies the fact that Pink News sees no problem with being sponsored by BAE Systems, a company immersed in human misery (and which happens to have sold arms to brutal regimes with horrific LGBT rights records). It’s also why it sees no issue with being supported by Clifford Chance, a law firm which has been implicated in several tax avoidance and fraud scandals, or the bank BNP Paribas which has overseen tax avoidance and money laundering while assisting brutal dictatorships. This matters because gay rights are inextricable from wider social justice and human rights. As Margot Salomon of LSE put it over at Open Democracy:
The idea that civil and political rights are the true (‘core’) human rights – Neier refers by way of example to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, the prohibition of cruel treatment or punishment, the right to privacy – is an idea that has been superseded by developments in theory, law and practice. Human rights – civil and political and economic and social – work synergistically. The political failures epitomized by the lack of financial oversight that led to the crisis gave rise to social and economic harms of the gravest of sort.
The line that ‘gay rights are human rights’ was tritely repeated again and again during the gay marriage debate but little engaged with – this is precisely what it means. Gay rights no more exist in a vacuum than gay people do and to deny this is to demean our humanity. To engage with amoral (even actively destructive) corporations while encouraging a shallow focus only on our gay identity is worse than useless – it’s harmful. Equality demands more.
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.
This is as neat an illustration of my previous blog as could be. Without wishing to repeat myself, a few brief points about it:
- As is already typical of this issue, it’s a column written by a Westerner which features absolutely no voices from within Russia. It seems a no-brainer to me that any boycotts (or indeed other action) should not only be informed, but meaningfully led by, activists in Russia. If people in other countries had decided to boycott the UK when it introduced Section 28, without actually speaking to anyone in the country, we would have found them utterly absurd. It’s an illustration of our Western arrogance that we feel completely justified leading on action in a country most of us have never set foot in.
- An ignorance which is aptly illustrated by a series of links to reported events which we still known next to nothing about. The ‘Neo-Nazi skinheads torturing gay kids’ thing is reported on the website of a ‘human rights’ organisation which pretty much no-one had heard of last week. Its ‘base’ appears to be a PO Box in America. It provides almost no actual evidence for its claims and we have no reason to treat it as a credible source. Yet the story has still been reported worldwide. This isn’t to deny that it may be happening but we surely have an obligation to properly look into it rather than indignantly posting some links while demanding our boycotts which it’s clear some Russian activists think are utterly pointless?
- She also posts the Buzzfeed link which everyone has been sharing. A link where you can see some harrowing photos surrounded by links such as “Your Favorite Celebs Decked Out In Lisa Frank”, “20 Signs that Jennifer Lawrence is Your Spirit Animal” and “27 Occasions That Definitely Call For Cake”. It’s cheap and tawdry. Buzzfeed could easily have a) written more than 50 words about the issue and b) linked to further reading. They don’t do either because they want to keep people’s attention and they don’t want to drive traffic away from the site. The fact that the story was apparently their most read of the week explains why they’re doing so many (facile) follow-ups. Seriously, what is this shit?
- Thinking that the IOC actually cares a jot about human rights suggests at best a staggering naivete and at worst an incredulous stupidity. As I previously wrote, the IOC has history both of lending credence to repressive regimes and of demanding authoritarian crackdowns in ‘democratic’ countries which are hosting the games.
- Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that this author brings up the Nazi comparison and the Jews given that almost no countries boycotted the Olympics when they were held in Nazi Germany in 1936. The UK has never boycotted the Olympics, even during the US-led boycott of the Soviet Union in 1980.
- The point she makes however, that everyone would boycott the Olympics if Russia was persecuting Jews, is a bit of an odd one given that Russia (and indeed previous host cities like China) have a track record of oppression which long pre-dates…last month. The clear implication that the Russian authorities could continue to harass, attack, jail and murder its opponents, feed and use far-right nationalism and racism, crack down on basic human rights and engage in brutal crackdowns as long as no-one was subject to any of this solely because of their sexuality is embarrassing, if not blatantly offensive.
- “Twenty-first century queers aren’t going to wait quietly for a diplomatic solution while each month more of us are tortured and more of us are murdered.” You’re right, not drinking vodka and calling for Olympic boycotts is far more appealing and productive. Yet in the next paragraph she pretty much attributes the end of apartheid to the actions of world governments.
- Which is in itself obviously hugely problematic, completely ignoring the long and often violent struggle which took place on the ground within South Africa. It certainly became an international movement but it was not one which was imposed on South Africans from the West. Plus, Russia clearly isn’t South Africa and its dominance of the EU’s oil and gas supplies is enormously relevant here.
- In short, this is the kind of indignant and ill-informed response which unfortunately seems to be driving this whole thing.