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  • Published in Analysis

Protesters against the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, Russia. Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

Alastair Stephens looks at the hypocritical response of the Western media to the Sochi Games

In the media furore over the Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi, there are three words you won’t hear: section twenty-eight.

For those who don’t remember, section 28 was the notorious law passed by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, which ruled that local government bodies “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Its meaning remained legally unclear: what did “promote” mean?

State-encouraged homophobia

Left-wing councils had started to implement what we would today call “equal opportunities” and “diversity” polices, and the Tories wanted to stop this. They also wanted to shut down discussion and make it clear that only one sort of relationship was acceptable: heterosexual marriage. Others were simply “pretended” relationships.

There was a spirited campaign of mass demonstrations by the LGBT community against it, and its manifest illogic meant that it was never tested in court. However, it had a chilling effect in the public services, most of all in schools. It is twenty-five years since it was passed and 10 years since it was repealed, but there remains a distinct nervousness about discussing homosexuality.

It was part of a homophobic and sexist attempt by the right to roll back the changes brought about by the “permissive sixties”. The media was full of stories about “gay paedophiles” – although never “straight paedophiles” – “gender benders” and the “gay plague” (AIDS). An issue that was previously thought unfit for public discussion suddenly became of obsessive and prurient interest to the right-wing media. It was at this time that the term “homophobia” came into general usage as a way to describe the fear of LGBT people that was deliberately being created.

Section 28 created not only fear but hatred and violence, and the number of homophobic hate crimes went up. The Tories, who had originally brought in section 28, continued to defend it long after they tried to soften their stance on other issues in an attempt to lose their image as the “nasty party”.

When its repeal came before parliament in 2001 and 2003, the Tories voted against it. One shadow minister was sacked for defying the whip. David Cameron, then still a back bencher, did not need the whip to make him conform. He opposed its repeal even before he was elected, accusing the new Prime Minister, Blair, of being “anti-family”.

Section 28 became the model for similar measures around the world, most recently in Uganda, and of course, Russia.

Homophobia and the new right

Similar laws are on the statute books in 10 US states. In Utah, state laws require that “Materials adopted by a local school board. . . shall . . . comply with state law and state board rules . . . prohibiting instruction . . . in the advocacy of homosexuality.” When the 2008 Winter Olympics were held in Utah there was no call to boycott them.

Although Barack Obama boycotted, or at least did not attend, the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, saying that he had “no patience” with homophobia, he has never made any such statements about places such as Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the US is the still the true home and centre of the anti-gay discourse that has swept the world in the last three decades. That is not to say that homophobia didn’t exist before 1980, but homosexuality was not something generally thought fit for public discussion.

It was under the President Ronald Reagan’s right-wing Republican administration, elected  in 1980, that the Cold War hawks and the religious right got together to mobilize the so-called “moral majority” – in reality, a shrinking minority of the population – against the left and the forces that had shaken US society in the previous two decades. The LGBT community was not the only group to come under attack, but it was at the head of the right’s hit list, along with women and blacks.

The right took good, old-fashioned prejudice and silent disapproval and molded it into a screaming, shouting political weapon. What was previously avoided in polite conversation now became the object of public opprobrium and obsessive campaigning. A grab-bag of themes was assembled: LGBT people are sinful, a threat to the family, they want to recruit your children and use taxpayers’ money to do so. Homosexuality was conflated with paedophilia.

Some of the stranger claims, which are nevertheless taken surprisingly seriously by many people, are that LGBT people, or laws that are soft on them, are responsible for anything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. We are not safe from such claims in the UK. Only weeks ago, a UKIP councilor ago claimed that the recent floods were the fault of gay marriage.

For cynical political use of homophobia, it is hard to beat the Republicans in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections. In states across the country they launched ballot initiatives to constitutionally forbid gay marriage to coincide with the polls in an attempt to mobilize conservative voters who were otherwise disappointed by Bush’s dismal record. The campaign was widely reckoned to have been successful and to have affected the result of the election. It not only whipped up homophobia across the country, but made it impossible for some elected state legislatures to pass gay marriage legislation.

Thirty-one US states have adopted constitutional amendments banning legal recognition of same-sex unions. These measures are particularly cynical, given that the charge has been led by states in which there is no real prospect of such laws passing any time soon anyway. But then 14 states still had laws against sodomy until 2003, when the Supreme Court struck them down. Extra-legal forms of discrimination and violence against LGBT people are still endemic in the US, the UK and much of the western world.

The US right has also consistently opposed measures to combat homophobic hate crimes. For instance, Republicans in the US Congress have consistently voted against the Matthew Shepard Act, named after Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998, which would add homophobia to the list of federal hate crimes. During the debates, one Republican Congresswoman described the murder as a hoax. The Act was finally passed in 2003.

Yet more hypocrisy

In the marvelously dichotomous coverage of the Olympics, although the sports channels praise everything to the skies and deny sport have anything to do with politics, the news channels have relentlessly pursued the question of Russia’s poor record on gay rights.

However, at the same time as sections of the media have derided Putin for his political use of the Olympics for the glorification of his increasingly authoritarian regime, David Cameron visited the Velodrome in Stratford to laud the role of Chris Hoy and Andy Murray in the British Olympic Team.

It might also be noted that in Qatar, the host country of the 2022 World Cup, homosexual acts are illegal and punishable for up to five years. When questioned about this, Sepp Blatter, head of Fifa, responded, “I’d say they [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities.”

New Cold War

Much of the rhetoric calling for a boycott of the Sochi Games bears an uncanny resemblance to the rhetoric of the 1980s when the US boycotted the Games in Moscow. The ostensible reason for the boycott was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which, given that the US had not long finished trying to bomb Vietnam “back to the stone age”, in General Curtis LeMay’s famous words, was the rankest hypocrisy.

The Moscow boycott marked the start of the second Cold War – the renewed demonisation of the Soviet Union after the easing of relations between the superpowers, known as détente, and a return to the arms race. The Soviet Union now became the “evil empire”, against which a ludicrously expensive nuclear missile build-up was required. It broke the back of the Soviet economy and the US won the Cold War. The Soviet Union disappeared, and was replaced by a much diminished and compliant Russia.

But then the US suffered imperial overstretch and economic setback. Iraq blew up in its face and the economy slumped. The US’s bid for global hegemony started to look short-lived. When Russia revived after a decade of anarchy and reasserted itself in the world it was in not in a mood to easily forgive the indignities or damage inflicted on it by the Yankee imperialists.

So what is going on in Russia?

The anti “gay propaganda” law passed last year is quite obviously an attempt to deligitimise and demonise LGBT people in Russia. As might be expected, it has led to a wave of homophobia across the country. However, it has not come out of nowhere. There has been mounting anti-gay rhetoric and increased use of homophobia by the right – which includes many on the supposed left – over the last few years. LGBT rallies have been attacked and activists beaten up, often as a prelude to being arrested.

The right has increasingly used public homophobia as a way to attack the left and liberals, usually by tarring them with the brush of either paedophilia, which seems to be indistinguishable form homosexuality in the minds of many of these homophobes, or conspiracy with the decadent west against holy Russia. It is interesting to note that the first attempt to pass an anti “gay propaganda” law was made by Deputies in the Russian parliament of Just Russia, the official, Kremlin-approved, left party.

All of which has a certain irony, given that the political use of homophobia and the suite of ideas and techniques that are used to create and mobilise bigotry have all been copied lock, stock and barrel from the US (anti-Soviet) new right.

Homophobia à la Russe

That is not to say that homophobia did not exist previously in Russia. The Soviet Union was a deeply homophobic society, in which male homosexuality, after its recriminalisation under Stalin in 1933, could be punished by up to 15 years in prison under article 121 of the Criminal Code. The law was abolished in 1993 to zero public reaction. But homophobia was not of any political importance, and nor was it discussed in public. For that matter, neither was sex of any sort. When in a glasnost era TV link-up a Russian woman proclaimed that “There is no sex” in the Soviet Union, it was taken by many to have a certain, if not literal, truth to it.

This strategy is closely modeled on the wave of homophobia which swept the western world in the 1980s, driven by the right. It is part of an attempt to create anti-western patriotism by finding points of difference. It is also part of an attempt to create an ersatz Russian nationalism out of seemingly disparate elements: tsarist, Soviet and new right.

Although Soviet symbolism is being revived, the Church and Russia’s essential nature as an Orthodox Christian country are again being feted. Although Russia is constitutionally a secular state, black-clad priests are again trying to enforce conformity on society as the de facto national church, despite the fact that a recent nationwide poll shows that only 41% of Russians claim to be believers.

The regime, however, needs all the props it can find. Its democratic legitimacy was challenged by a mass democratic movement in 2012-13, and the economic success of the last decade now seems to be receding. It has attempted to isolate its enemies in society by linking them in the minds of the public with a conspiracy that unites sexual deviants and western imperialists.

The anti “gay propaganda” law is a cynical means of diverting the growing discontent and alienation in society onto a small and mostly defenceless group, the LGBT community. Comparisons between Sochi and Hitler’s Munich Games are ridiculous, and merely play into the hands of the right-wing forces in our own societies. They also display little understanding either of German history or Russia today.

Return of the pogrom

It is not difficult to find a state-inspired campaign of violence in Russian society. The media and the talking heads have had virtually nothing to say about the horrifying levels of racism, in particular of Islamophobia, in Russia. Last year, there were at least 20 racist murders and probably many more. Probably the most shocking was the stabbing to death in 2004 of Khursheda Sultanova, a nine-year-old Tajik girl, by neo-Nazi skinheads.

Many of these racist murders are carried out by a violent far right, which has become increasingly emboldened by the rhetoric of politicians and the authorities. Virtually everyone in the Moscow mayoral elections last year talked about “ethnic crime”. Incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin opined that “[p]eople who don’t speak Russian well, who have a totally different culture, they are better off living in their own country…That is why we do not welcome their adaptation in Moscow.”

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, usually lauded in the West, revealed more fully than usual his right nationalist politics when he repeated lazy offensive stereotypes that few Western politicians would ever say aloud. He wrote of the “hordes of legal and illegal immigrants” who live and work in the city’s bazaars. “From there they crawl out to the surrounding neighborhoods…They’re not going to die of hunger when they can’t find work, not when they can snatch a purse in the subway or take somebody’s money at knifepoint in an elevator.” It was straight out of the American new right’s anti-crime discourse aimed at the African-American population.

The police launched a crackdown in which many “blacks” – a racist term for people from the Caucasus; a strange inversion of English racial terminology – were rounded up. The city’s jails were soon overflowing.

It is hardly surprising then in October something like a pogrom broke out in the poor Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo. The root causes of the riot, as Ilya Budraitskis of the Russian Socialist Movement says, were much the same as anywhere: poor housing, poverty, exclusion. However, the particular racist dynamic of the disturbances, which made it closer to a pogrom than a normal urban riot, did not come about by chance.

The police response was to be expected. Although the rioters were quickly released and only three rightists charged – in stark contrast to harsh treatment of leftists charged over the Bolotnaya disturbances last year – a sweep was made of immigrants, which saw over 1,000 arrested.

The growth of racism has not gone uncontested, as Kevin Ovenden has written on this site previously, but the far right has enjoyed 20 years of protection and sometimes encouragement of sections of the establishment.

East and west: united by Islamophobia

Another important factor in the racism which so many face in Russia is Islamophobia. Most migrants in Russia come from the northern Caucasus (actually part of Russia), the Caucasian States and the so-called “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc). Most are Muslim.

The Russian state fears the rise of Islamism due its attempts to repress resistance to Russian imperial rule in the Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya and Dagestan, a bitter colonial war which frequently has a tragic backwash into Russia’s cities, in the form of terrorism, with ordinary people as the causalities, most recently in Volgograd. It also sees it as a threat to its client regimes, the former southern republics of the Soviet Union, the “Stans”.

The result is a poisonous cocktail of fears of an alien religion, economic migration and terrorism, all catalysed by an Islamophobia of which many themes were borrowed off the hook from the west’s “war on terror”. Funnily enough, none of this has been brought up by the western media when discussing Russia’s national faults.

Russia without pogroms

There is opposition to such racism and homophobia in Russian society. Polls show that large parts of the population are opposed to racist ideas and homophobia. Neo-Nazism may have grown, but Russia’s history makes it a hard sell. However, as the regime plunges further into crisis, it is likely that the state will try to turn up the temperature on these things. It is also likely that resistance to them will increase.

When leftists marched against racism in St Petersburg last December, as it does each year, they marched under the slogan, “Russia without pogroms”. This is a battle that will be won only by uniting ordinary people across Russia, Europe and the world against racism and bigotry, not by siding with those who want to restart the Cold War.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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