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Aug 13 2013

On Stephen Fry’s letter and Russia: the oppression Olympics

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.)

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Lou Doench

    I understand the impulse to boycott the Olympics, although the IOC is such a corrupt organization that I’m fairly certain an argument could be made to boycott every Olympics. But I think its important to remember that these games were awarded to Sochi 6 years ago, way before the most egregious of Putin’s homo-bigoted policies came to light or were even formed. Moving them now is simply unfeasible.

    Oh yeah, welcome to FtB!

  2. 2
    Alex Gabriel

    Thank you! One thing that didn’t make it into this post: it’s interesting Fry’s taken this position on Sochi 2014, since he called human rights protesters and critics of the London 2012 Olympics “cynics, curmudgeons, wet-blankets, pessimists, and (literally in this case) spoilsports.”

  3. 3
    katshaus

    Thank you for that insightful response to Fry’s letter. I hadn’t thought of it in those contexts. I shall be reading your blogs with great interest down here in Oz. Thanks go to PZ and Ophelia for recommending you.

  4. 4
    Alex Gabriel

    Thanks to you for reading. :)

  5. 5
    cartomancer

    I think this analysis is extremely uncharitable on several points.

    For a start, Fry’s central point about the 1936 Olympics was not that it was Britain’s finest hour, rather the complete opposite – that the British and Olympic authorities stood by and let Hitler’s regime turn the Olympics into a PR coup in 1936. Far from invoking a sense of cultural superiority in good old British values there, Fry was flagging up past failings and exhorting that they not be allowed to happen again. That Britain in the 30s and 40s was rife with antisemitism and homophobia rather bolsters this point – we weren’t any better then, we can’t hold our heads up high with jingoistic pride, and appreciating this shame should, hopefully, encourage us to be better now.

    It thus seems very far-fetched indeed to suggest that Fry chose to focus on the anti-Jewish, rather than the anti-gay, aspects of Nazi policy in an attempt to whitewash our colonial past. While it is true that the civilized / barbarous dichotomy is very often pressed into service to do that, Fry does not make any explicit link between traditional British values and an anti-homophobia stance in his letter. Nowhere does he claim that our exporting of homophobic attitudes in our colonial days was not a problem, or that immigrant homophobia is a product of not “getting” British values. He doesn’t really couch it in terms of Britishness at all, and it is worth noting that the letter is addressed as much to the officials of the IOC in all their international affiliations as it is to David Cameron. Admittedly one is tempted to agree that arrogating the title “the civilized world” to either Cameron’s Britain or the IOC is a little brash and premature, but it seems to me that Fry uses the term in an aspirational rather than a back-slapping way. I read that as an exhortation to demonstrate that one is civilized by supporting the side of right, rather than a haughty claim that Britain somehow embodies civilization by default and can help others out by dispensing its imprimatur.

    Also, the term “barbaric” is used not of a former British colony in this letter but of Nazi Germany. Were it used of a former colony then the leap to unfortunate imperialistic overtones would be obvious, but in this context far less so. It is othering, certainly, but the colonial paradigm is not one we have ever applied to our relations with either Germany or Russia. There are, i suspect, people for whom the terms “civilized” and “barbarous” will always and in every context scream colonial imperialism. I would submit that often, and almost certainly in this case, “barbarous” simply means “unacceptable”.

    That Fry focuses more on the Jewish than the LGBT victims of the Nazis seems more a tugging-at-the-heartstrings device than a calculated geopolitical pitch. Later in the letter he mentions that his Jewish mother lost many relatives during the Holocaust, which is an emotional appeal best set-up by focusing on that aspect. While it is questionable as to whether this attempt to personalise the exhortation is rhetorically effective, it seems silly to think it is not heartfelt. If one is being cynical one might also point to the fact that the Jewish victims of the Nazis are so much more prominent in the general culture than the gay ones that mentioning them pushes the “ooh, nasty Nazis” hot buttons much more effectively. And perhaps if he had focused solely on the gay victims then it could have been more easily dismissed as a self-serving single-issue demand, rather than part of a wider approach to justice and equality.

    As for the notion that Fry’s praise for Cameron’s work on equal marriage is an exercise in encouraging “sanctimony”, that too seems a gross exaggeration. Although with Cameron sanctimony is rarely more than a shadow’s breadth away. Again, a much more likely motive for the final paragraph is politeness and credibility. Fry is well known for being outspoken in his left-wing politics and dislike of almost everything traditionally Tory, so the notion that he is pre-empting automatic dismissal by Cameron on those grounds seems a very plausible one. The “I don’t like most of what you do, but I am willing to praise you on this bit” sentiment is a classic piece of gracious diplomatic concession in the interests of polite dialogue. Very twee, very establishment, perhaps a little nauseating, but not bad in and of itself. Again, I read that as Fry trying to encourage more LGBT-friendly policies among his traditional political enemies by praising the few good things they’ve done on that score, not claiming that everything in Britain is suddenly a bed of roses for LGBT people because of equal marriage. Encouraging a general sense of “please listen to your conscience and do what is right” does not entail “you are thereby automatically elevated as a paragon of moral perfection”.

    Finally, I would agree that if most Russian LGBT campaign groups do not want a boycott then Stephen Fry should listen and take heed. Though I also think his letter is not incompatible with their aims. After all, Stephen Fry cannot have seriously expected that any of his letter’s recipients would actually take his advice and act against all the vested interests who are their perpetual masters – that the Olympics would really be moved or cancelled. No, this was an exercise in consciousness-raising pure and simple. The letter is intended to go public and raise awareness of the disjunct between Russia’s LGBT rights record and the Olympic glory it is arrogating to itself. To put and keep the LGBT rights issue firmly in the picture when people think about Sochi 2014.

    After all, if the Russian campaigners want to use this Olympics to publicise their worthy cause then a healthy dose of high-profile outrage in the international media is just the ticket. Does David Cameron pay much attention to Russian LGBT rights campaigners? I very much doubt it. Does he pay attention to the British media? Damn right he does. And this, perhaps, is where Stephen Fry is best positioned to make a difference. Albeit in a very generalised way. Now that the blustering, attention-grabbing and clearly impractical suggestion that Mr. Fry has made has caused ripples, I suspect a good number of bigwigs are going to be considerably more open to the Russian groups’ messages than they otherwise would have been. Or, at least, one can only hope.

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