Fashionability Politics: Leveraging anti-Russian Sentiment to Perpetuate Racial Hierarchy within the LGBTQ Community


Mike Perry I Race & Ethnicity I Analysis I February 14th, 2014



The 2014 Winter Olympics are here: A time when 204 recognized countries partake in competitive winter sports to prove their physical prowess and superiority to all other participants. Therefore, it is rather ironic that Russia, the country in which the Olympics are being held, seems to be going for the gold in the events of queer-antagonism and bigotry - that is, at least, what one could safely conclude from all of the media brouhaha. Whilst Russia's issues with the LGBTQ community is, without question, an atrocity that should not be overlooked, we should question why there is a particular focus on that part of the world and take a deeper look at the nuances of this negative publicity. In particular, we should look at its role in leveraging anti-Russian sentiment to perpetuate white supremacy and racial hierarchy within the LGBTQ community.

What is most peculiar about the slew of media coverage on Russia is that it is so palpably propagandist. Russia is always, as is par for the course, cast in a most negative light, emphasizing their "lack of democracy and humanity," whether real or imagined - a topic so complex and grossly misunderstood that these perceptions can most assuredly be considered imagined. None of which is said to negate the fact that there are very real cultural differences between the so-called "West" and Russia; however, because of a plethora of such differences and historical realities, Russia is constantly given a bad rap. But, even still, there is a deliberate yet insidious and less recognized attempt by American culture and media to not only undermine Russia as a legitimate so-called "superpower," but also to, strangely, co-opt these media biases against Russia (because of the recently implemented anti-gay propaganda law) into the promotion and perpetuation of the white supremacy and racial hierarchy that exist within the LGBTQ community. These topics might, at first glance, seem either completely disconnected or a stretch of the imagination, but let us take a moment to analyze this phenomenon even further.

On June 30th, Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed into law the new anti-gay propaganda bill. Word of this measure set news media, bloggers and the rest of the Internet ablaze with anger, finger pointing and shunning disapproval. Considering Russia was chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Putin's implementation of this law eight months before the events seemed, at best, untimely and in poor taste, and, at worst, a direct attack against the Russian LGBTQ community. Fear that this new law had marked the beginning of something incredibly sinister quickly spread, and considering that marriage equality in the United States is currently at the forefront of most political discourse, Putin's new law fell in stark contrast to the "progress" that was being made in the United States. Images of gays, lesbians, bisexual, trans, and anyone who identified with or showed support for the LGBTQ community being taken away, thrown into jail or worse - killed - have flashed in and out of people's minds. Some people have even been calling to boycott the Olympic Games, which, in itself, is a futile undertaking as there would be very little socio-economic impact on Russia by said actions.

Nonetheless, it continues to be peculiar that Russia, or perhaps, to be more specific, Vladimir Putin, has received so much attention - though duly warranted - for recently enacting the anti-gay propaganda law when, according to The International Lesbian, Gay, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are 78+ countries with criminal laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex people. Despite this global trend, there has been very little to no outcry about the injustices that exist within those countries; some of which far exceed those of the injustices done in Russia. Of the 78+ countries, 38 are in Africa, 22 are in Asia and the Middle East, 10 in the Americas, and 9 in Oceania. The large majority of countries with anti-gay laws tend to be those with predominantly black and brown populations (a phenomenon to be analyzed another time). It should be noted though that, as of May 2013, ILGA has NOT listed Russia as a country with criminal laws against sexual activity by LGBTQ persons, but one should assume that that will change in 2014.

Even with all the media attention surrounding Russia's anti-queer sentiment, it should also be said that while the United States ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court only in 2003, they are still on the books in 13 states: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. And queer people of color in the United States tend, disproportionately, to be the victims of violence in comparison to their white peers and yet there is no attention given to these tragedies.

A study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) "found that LGBT(Q) people of minority races are nearly twice as likely to be victims of violence as their white counterparts." NCAVP also found that, based on data from anti-violence programs in 16 states, the overall number of hate murders of members of the LGBTQ community has increased by 11%. Of those murdered, 87% were people of color , an increase from 70% in 2010. The NCAVP states, "These statistics indicate that bias based on gender identity, race, and the intersection of race and LGBTQ identity is pervasive throughout the United States."

One might argue that these statistics don't necessarily represent state-sponsored discrimination against queer persons of color, but is that true? If there are states that have anti-sodomy laws that are explicitly queer-antagonistic, and violence against queer people (specifically, queer people of color) still occurs at alarming rates, can one honestly say that America does not have its own share of state sponsored queer-antagonism/violence? It could also be argued that state-sponsored queer-antagonism is not, and does not need to be, contingent on the implementation of anti-queer laws (e.g. 'de facto' vs 'de jure' discrimination). Culture and attitudes can and will unequivocally affect state-sponsorship even if not in law. And, as the Williams Institute, a sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy think tank, points out: "…even within a community that struggles with unequal treatment, race and gender privilege determine political visibility." This, then, begs the question, are these same factors at play in regards to queer activism and Russia? One could safely assume that race is most certainly acting as a way of giving the plight of LGBTQ Russians "political visibility."

Another interesting fact: according to the Williams Institute, when examining socioeconomic status of same-sex-couple households along racial and gender lines, they found that "when you add race to the mix, the disparities widen. Although in general white male same-sex-couple households have a lower poverty rate than heterosexual married couples, significantly higher poverty rates are seen in Black, Asian American and Latino same-sex couples."

And yet the mainstream LGBTQ community has largely been quiet about these statistics, as has been the rest of the United States. So, why has there been a great amount of focus on Russia all of a sudden? Gay personals website gay.com was sure to survey their "Russian Romeos" (members) to give everyone a peek into Russia and the discrimination that Russian LGBTQs face. Surveys given to members whose residence is in any one of the 78+ countries was noticeably absent. Gay publication The Advocate is also noticeably silent on violence/antagonism against queer black and brown folks in other part of the world. Instead, their front page is filled with news on the Sochi games. Even one Google search of "gay law" or "anti-gay" will autofill with any number of words or phrases referring to Russia. One might argue that the Olympics have served as a way to bring attention to the problem in Russia. But more likely, they have been inconspicuously used as a way to give support to causes that tend to affect predominantly white populations.

Unfortunately, none of this should come as a surprise. Since the country's inception, the United States has - actively and passively, consciously and subconsciously - pathologized black and brown folks; ascribing a sort of worthlessness to those bodies, as opposed to their white peers who have been bestowed an unwarranted worth and exceptionality, as is evidenced by any number of studies/statistics showing the social/economic/political/educational/etc disparities that exist between races. Therefore, it is of very little surprise that the same attitude has also been applied to the global community, specifically in regards to European LGBTQ support and activism. While countries of predominantly black and brown populations and anti-gay laws are pathologized, countries with predominantly white populations and anti-gay laws (e.g. Russia) are NOT pathologized. This pathology then translates into a type of unwarranted exceptionalism that gives way to a particularly insidious and disingenuous form of altruism, inevitably favoring one group of people over another. This is called fashionability politics: whereas one, consciously or subconsciously, finds it fashionable to support a cause (or a people) based on the perceived worth of said cause/persons. It is a complete travesty to give greater credence to the plight of LGBTQ Russians than that of LGBTQs elsewhere, not because queer Russian lives are of lesser value but because it misrepresents and distorts the core tenants of what it means to fight for equality. And that is not to say that the situation in Russia should be disregarded or made light of; however, it should all be looked at in context.

Proof of this pathologizing goes deeper than the seemingly otiose rhetoric. It is pervasive in American society and in particular, American media. As is evidenced by any number of articles, whose titles tell the reader who is pathologized and who is not. For example, GQ's article on gay Russians says it all in the headline: "Inside the Iron Closet: What It's Like to Be Gay in Putin's Russia," as opposed to "What it's Like to Be Gay in Russia." And while the article does go into detail about cultural anti-queer sentiment, the title itself throws that fact askew as it demonizes and implies that Putin is the cause for bigotry within the country. Russians are not pathologized to the same extent that Nigerians are, for example. White Russians also seem to be benefitting from the same sort of privilege and exceptionalism by Western activism that has consistently benefitted white Americans; hetero and queer.

In regards to Nigeria, take for example the fact that "In December, President Goodluck Jonathan signed legislation commonly known as the 'Jail the Gays Bill' into law, sparking a 'witch hunt' for gays in the northern region of the country, with scores of known or suspected gay men held for trials in Islamic religious courts. If convicted, these men could be sentenced to death by stoning. Incidents of violence against gays and lesbians are on the rise, including a mob raid on an LGBT community center in the Ivory Coast last week, and attacks on gay men in Cameroon and Zambia." Or another example where, in Uganda, teams of anti-gay lawmakers with supposed "medical backgrounds" have prepared a report for Uganda's president that claim to have scientific evidence of homosexuality being "culturally acquired" and curable. President Yoweri Museveni had said he would not sign the country's Anti-Homosexuality Bill unless he got confirmation from scientists that this so-called 'condition' is not genetic, but behavior that is acquired. Both examples depict the pathologizing of black and brown folks in regards to queer-antagonism. The same does not hold true for queer Russians.

There is no doubt that queer antagonism and violence is a global atrocity - one that should be addressed in totality, and not simply because of the fashionability of doing so. In light of anti-Russian sentiment, white supremacy, and the pathologizing of black and brown bodies, issues have been leveraged to promote and perpetuate racial hierarchy against people of color and preferential treatment for their white peers within the queer community. The fact that there is queer antagonism deemed more important or legitimate than others is, quite frankly, disturbing and completely destructive to the larger queer community. Not only are other LGBTQ issues overshadowed as a result, but white queer sympathy, unwarranted and undeserved privilege, and exceptionalism are spawned as well. These mentalities only act to promote and perpetuate greater inequality, and racial inequality, within the queer community.