Missing the Boat on LGBT Rights Abroad

Putin’s right up there as an evil genius, planning the invasion of Ukraine while all the nations of the world were sitting in his living room blissed out on ice skating and tsarist pomp and ignoring human rights abuses, not to mention the outright targeting of queers.

Now his former guests are shocked and surprised at how the Russian troops celebrated the closing ceremonies of the Olympics with their own little fête on the Crimean border. I mean, it’s one thing to strip LGBT Russians of their human and civil rights, beat the crap out of them, toss them in jail just for whispering the word “gay,” and quite another to decide that Ukrainians don’t have any rights to their own territory. How dare he?

I hope the International Olympic Committee has a collectively red face and particularly twisted knickers. They awarded Russia the Games in the first place, then papered over the graft and corruption, while officially banning protest and squelching anybody trying to disrupt one of their events or even raise a sign about human rights conditions. No doubt they’re hoping this doesn’t go down in history as another 1936, when the Olympics were held in a Berlin downplaying the German anti-Semitic agenda and plans to invade most of Europe.

We like to pretend history moves in the direction of progress, more civil rights, more peace, but in fact that little trajectory has more ups and downs than a cardiogram. So who knows, really, who’ll die before this whole thing is over?

Not that the US was better. Just like in ‘36, our government responded to complaints about human rights and demands for action with little more than a deep and serious frown, while flirting with a tiny boycott. Not of athletes, of course. They sent plenty of athletes to Sochi, but not the VIP’s they had slated to sit in the stands. Even at the time, you could practically see Putin rubbing his hands and muttering, “Suckers!”

The American LGBT response was sadly pathetic, too. We of all people should understand the stakes. Nevertheless, all we did with our gay millions was buy American Apparel rags splattered with rainbows or whatever and sign a few more online petitions. In an article in Slate, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, an out lesbian, said our LGBT reps at the Games partied in Sochi’s gay bar, abandoning the Russian queers who risked their lives out on the streets to demonstrate, having expected their foreign LGBT peers to support them with their own acts of protests.

Don’t worry, oh you anti-homonationalists, she’s not asking for queer nationalist troops to arrive on the ground and “liberate” Russian queers. Though if anybody has a couple hundred tanks and a billion dollars, I’m willing to give it a try. No, what she wanted is what most people want when they’re trying to demand basic human and civil rights in an authoritarian state that has turned them into convenient scapegoats — a watchful eye from abroad so that they don’t “disappear” when they get snatched up by the cops. They could also use a little money if you have it so they can pay the enormous fines Putin’s kangaroo courts use to crush his opponents.

Vigilance and money are even more important in deteriorating places like Uganda, or Nigeria, where there’s plenty of danger from the state, which has criminalized homosexuality, but far more from the lynch mobs that have been told queers are responsible for everything from the spread of malaria to struggling economies. LGBT people have to organize from the closet and often have to flee their homes. Queers regularly end up dead. From what I hear, plenty of LGBT folks would rather have plane tickets and visas than computers or activist resources, so they can get the hell out before it’s them beaten or killed in the street.

We have to do something, anything, to support those who remain. Not forgetting that dykes and trans people have double and triple problems. There’s a war against women as well.

We can start by sidelining those few, but loud, “useful idiot” queers echoing the arguments of homophobes when they denounce Western outsiders who try to help as homonationalists or colonialists. To me, they’re the ones with the problem. How dare they counsel inaction? Sit by while LGBT people are imprisoned and killed?

So I’ll say it again. It’s time for American LGBT people to act. Not only because it’s people like us being targeted in Russia, Africa, and other points, but because our inaction is not neutral — it emboldens the queer cleansers. And because in Africa, particularly, we’re responsible for amplifying local gay-hating: the money funding these bigots across the globe is coming from our own American (fundamentalist) pockets.