Putting a rainbow on Sochi’s games changes nothing

Some years ago, the Asian Women’s Advisory Service on Mare Street, Hackney had to close. In 2009, the rebuilding was bought up, transformed into an upmarket café (£6 per halloumi-and-avocado burger). Joking ostensibly at their own expense, the management named it the Advisory, retaining the old sign and furnishing walls with ironic citizens’ advice slogans. The Twitterati fumed on getting word of this last summer, and the owners – keen social media watchers, no doubt – agreed to dispense with the sign. The progressive Third Estate and countless commenters called this ‘A victory against hipster colonialism’, but victory would have been the Asian women’s centre’s survival. Taking the sign down was a mitigated loss, but only in aesthetic terms.

Why mention this? Because commentary on Sochi’s current winter games brings it to mind.

Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog:

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled since the Olympics opening ceremony about the supposed LGBT themes that run amok in Sochi. Slate wasn’t the only outlet to write an article detailing just how “gay” the opening ceremonies were. But amidst growing rumbles from the progressive journalists about Russia’s increasingly backwards treatment of LGBT citizens (if you’ve not read Jeff Sharlet’s heartbreaking piece, go do so now. It’s lengthy, but worth it), many bloggers and Tweeters seemed excited by Greece’s supposed display of support for LGBT rights:

And who wouldn’t be excited? The fingers on their gloves appear to be the colors of the rainbow, a universal symbol for LGBT pride, which would seem to be a direct attack on Putin’s extreme stances on homosexuality.

. . .

The gloves are available for purchase, but the money goes straight to the Sochi Olympics[.] You see, those aren’t rainbow-colored fingers. Those are the colors of the Olympic Rings. What seemed at first to be a big gay “middle finger” to Putin, is nothing more than an expression of Olympic pride. But the story was believable, wasn’t it?

Not just the gloves, and not just Slate. Google’s rainbow logo, more undeniably an anti-homophobic gesture, drew the liberal commentariat’s applause, as did endless memes that echoed Slate by mocking every irony in sight. (‘Before you criticise Vladimir Putin for spending $51 billion dollars’, an admittedly amusing one from Red State Dems declared, ‘try forming a 51-strong male chorus without a single gay man.’)

Last-laughism fills the subtext here. If the whole thing’s a bit gay, we’re encouraged to console ourselves, Putin is showing himself up – his policies, once rainbow flags festoon the place, can’t be taken seriously; he and his friends have failed. Progressive forces have come out on top: sit back, bolstered, and watch the curling.

While we pat ourselves, chuckling, on the back, queer people are assaulted brutally on Moscow’s streets. Protesters like Anastasia Smirnova are arrested, as those police thought may cause ‘disruption’ were two years ago, ‘preemptively’, in London. Trans athletes, as Caldwell writes, face ‘regressive policies’ – not Russia’s, but the IOC’s – demanding they complete the forms, surgeries and drug courses deemed necessary in order to compete.

Those of us skeptical of boycotts hoped the games might magnify all this. Can they, if spectators’ impulse is to laugh at their own clever jokes about Olympic camp, as if once multicoloured gloves are worn, the day is won?

The Twitter mob who cheered the Hackney Advisory’s change of sign were as guilty as its owners were of reducing grim-faced struggles to marketing: a politics taking triumph in such superficial things is exactly that of the halloumi hipster. Mock the Olympiad’s medievalists and demagogues, by all means, but putting a rainbow on it gains us nothing.

Secular synthesis and why we need it – or, Hello Freethought Blogs

You already know that I’m a #FTBully. Of all the letters after my name (admittedly, there aren’t very many), those are the ones I’m proudest of. My feeling is, that tells you all you need know about me. Keep reading though.

I’m 22, secular, British, poly, queer, tall, ex-Christian, “left wing and long-winded”, a nerd, a graduate and a keyboard warrior. What that actually means is fallacious discourses piss me off, and so do faulty ideas they transmit. I’m skeptical, you might say, in that sense.

The backdrop to my joining this network is an organised skepticism more divided than ever, teetering toward civil war. I have no problems with that division. If our blogosphere and the community around it become the dogfight expected right now, things will get worse before they get better – but they will, I think, get better. There are problems in our movement – racism, misogyny, transphobia, harassment, wage theft, corruption – that we need to fix, and any chance we take by addressing them is a chance for self-improvement. Should skepticism implode in the coming weeks or months, there’s no point letting it implode again a year or several down the line: the time for staring down internal conflicts, all of them, is now.

Because of that, there won’t just be posts here on UK atheism – that is, on why our image as a godless paradise is unwarranted, our secular community underdeveloped and our strains of fundamentalism growing. There won’t just be posts on leaving extreme religion – how Hallowe’en once terrified me, how my niece was an evangelical at four years old and how I thought aged eight that Satan had possessed me. There won’t just be posts about mainstream and LGBT culture’s myths of sexuality, about sex and relationships, about the nerdsphere or about far-right religion’s fast-forming grip on UK campuses. There will be all of those, sooner or later, but not just those.

I named this blog Godlessness in Theory because I think we need new secular dialectics. I first encountered things like feminism and social justice largely through the atheist scene – I came of age reading Skepchick, Butterflies and Wheels and Greta Christina’s Blog – and I think it’s valuable, vital in fact, to view our movement through those kinds of frameworks. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s enough to switch between discourses as I’ve found myself doing; to blog on atheism some days and queerness others. The most exciting thoughts I’ve had in skepticism have been listening to Pragna Patel, Sikivu Hutchinson or Natalie Reed, in whose work secularity and social justice collide and complete, coherent modes of thinking germinate which speak to both. I love these writers’ work, because this is more than intersectional action; it’s an innovative, synthetic analysis. Pursuing secular synthesis as they have – bringing godlessness into theory, and vice versa – is my long-term stated aim. That’s what I’m here for, and what I think can repair our movement – even, perhaps, make it stronger than ever.

Wish me luck.

For the moment, an overview: if you haven’t read anything by me before, or you’ve read a post or two and you want to read more, the following ten posts are a good place to start.

I’m looking at archiving the rest of my past writing here; to stay updated in the mean time, go and Like this blog on Facebook. If you feel like you still want more, browse through my writing in the areas linked or see my blogroll here for the people I like reading. You can also drop me a line via email or Twitter, and believe me, I’ll be reading the comments.

Hello if we don’t know each other. Hello again if we already do. And hello Freethought Blogs – you’re the greatest network of them all. I’m thrilled to be here.

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.)