There’s much to admire and enjoy in Stephen Fry. I respect his public openness about mental illness and HIV-AIDS awareness-raising; his articulate promotion of secular humanist aesthetics; his brightness and wit on QI. I respected, admired and enjoyed less his open letter to David Cameron, calling recently for ‘an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics’ held next year.
‘Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like’, writes Fry. ‘At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world. He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.
‘… 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.’
Utah – yes, that hotbed of queer liberation where a third of LGBT teens are assaulted and two thirds harassed. Fry’s implicit geopolitics boasts a curious landscape: ‘the civilised world’ of Britain and Utah is juxtaposed with the ‘barbaric, fascist’ axis of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia, a contrast that underpins his argument. That the letter’s whole first paragraph, and the author’s extended treatise, focus solely on Nazi anti-Semitism as cautionary tale at first seemed odd – surely gay people’s own treatment in the Third Reich strikes a better analogue to contemporary Russia? – but by making Putin Hitler, Fry invites Cameron to play Churchill, boycotting Russia’s Olympics as Churchill fought Hitler’s fascism.
The comparison demands criteria by which fascist Germany in 1939 was categorically worse than England: while anti-Semitism ran rife in thirties and forties Britain, it never became explicit state practice, as was the police violence, imprisonment and forced labour which persisted under Churchill’s premiership. (Under his post-war government, convictions for homosexuality – in actual terms, levels of police harassment and violence toward queer men – rose four and a half times.) Fry’s recourse to anti-Nazism enlists Cameron in helping ‘save’ sexual minorities in Russia, as Britain loves to remember it saved European Jews, replaying on memorial loop its empire’s one moment of apparent heroism; an appeal to that moment requires a parallel of queer Russians today with a group the British state, and not Hitler’s Reich, accommodated at the time – true of Jews, at least on paper, but not LGBTs.
No wonder the letter’s language, ‘civilised’ rather than ‘barbaric’, evokes our colonial past’s kindlier and more benign pretensions, so wholly embodied by Fry’s tweedy, avuncular and hugely loveable persona. All reference to homophobia as uncivilised feels contextless: has anything, except perhaps religion, transmitted it more ably than the cause of ‘civilising’ dark-skinned nations? Our Prime Minister’s much-praised attack on multiculturalism two years ago advanced, as do the arguments of neocons like Douglas Murray, the notion migrants’ violence or queerphobia stems from a lack of Britishness; that they contradict nebulous ideas of our national identity, despite Britain’s exporting both worldwide for centuries. The binary division of the world simplistically into enlightened and fascistic regimes as deployed by Fry, then, doesn’t quite work – and it’s hard to avoid the thought much of the push for a 2014 Olympic boycott, as with the public outrage which followed Pussy Riot’s conviction, has more to do with posturing national one-upmanship than actual solidarity.
When three of the troupe’s members received two-year prison sentences last summer, condemnation swept Britain’s media – despite the fact British protester Charlie Gilmour had received an equally outrageous 16 month sentence in 2010 for swinging from the Whitehall Cenotaph, and anti-cuts activist Omar Ibrahim, charged with violent disorder in March 2011 after lobbing a joke-shop smoke bomb in Topshop’s direction, 18 months. (In the aftermath of the ‘England riots’ months later, Nicolas Robinson received six months for ‘looting’ a £3.50 pack of bottled water from a branch of Lidl.) Our right-wing commentariat blanched at Pussy Riot’s treatment, filled with that-sort-of-thing-wouldn’t-happen-here bravado – overlooking, conveniently, that it had happened and does.
Fry and the boycott lobby, similarly, have drawn much-paraded feelings of superiority from the UK’s establishment of same-sex marriage, claiming moral high ground over Putin’s Russia; they ignore that the same Act criminalises transitioning without your spouse’s say-so, that transgender and HIV-positive Britons are criminalised for having sex, that sex workers are harassed by police; that ‘cruising grounds’, the only space many people have for sexual activity, are continually surveilled and shut down and internet pornography, the only sexual resource or outlet for most queer youth, is soon to be blanket-blocked from British homes; that that it was only a decade back that Section 28, forbidding discussion of queer topics in schools just as Putin forbids it with young people, was on the books. That some gay couples can now marry here is no basis for sanctimony toward Russia, especially on the Cameron camp’s part.
Perhaps most interesting about the boycott demands is their overlooking Russian LGBT wishes. Two weeks ago, the Russian LGBT Network stated ‘the Olympic Games are a unique and powerful occasion for individuals, organizations, diplomatic missions, and governments to come together and voice, in tune with the Olympic ideals, the ideas of human rights, freedoms, equality and justice – regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. … The Olympics in Sochi should … demonstrate to everyone who is watching that the greatest athletes stand strong with their LGBT competitors and partners, out or closeted, and that together they stand strong with LGBT people and allies everywhere.’ Fry states that because he once visited St. Petersburg he knows whereof he speaks; why then does he ignore the statements of activists like Nikolay Alexeyev (a lawyer and journalist, by no means a fringe insurrectionary), who’ve called publicly for marches during the Games ‘to attract the maximum attention to the rights violations’?
Their argument makes sense. If Sochi hosts the games, it will find itself – as will the Russian government – scrutinised around the globe. Attempt to halt marches with police lines or arrests, and they’ll be condemned; allow them, and they’ll be pushed toward consistency in future. On the other hand, what will happen if the Olympics pass over Russia, as every Olympiad has since 1980 – and what will queer and trans* Russians have gained? Along with their victimisation, they’ll be erased from multinational attention just as Putin’s regime seeks to erase them from public space, and pro-boycott arguments including Fry’s exclude them from the conversation.
In 2007, African LGBTI leaders issued Peter Tatchell, much-loved celebrity activist, with an open letter. ‘Stay out of African LGBTI issues,’ it read, accusing him of distorting facts there to pose as the continent’s white saviour. ‘You have betrayed our trust over and over again. This is neo-colonialism and it has no place in our struggle or in Africa.’ Two years down the line, a book entitled Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality (at the time, a highly innovative text in British theory) went out of print on its publisher’s unreserved apology to Tatchell for a chapter titled ‘Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the “War on Terror”’; the chapter’s authors, Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, had criticised Tatchell’s record, apparently with consequences. It’s hard not to see similar self-heroising manoeuvres in Fry’s open letter and the gay press’s praise for it, their language equally colonial, their apparent motives, once again, more rooted in showboating than solidarity. If we’re really on the side of queer and trans* Russians, we should listen to them, not presume to speak vaingloriously on their behalf.
(Of course, I still love Stephen Fry.)