No need to see red just yet over Russian parliament’s assault on the pink side

Opinion: Stance on gay rights may not be extreme enough to earn pariah status

Vladimir Putin: making scapegoats of gay people as Hitler did of Jews, according to Stephen Fry

Vladimir Putin: making scapegoats of gay people as Hitler did of Jews, according to Stephen Fry

Sat, Aug 10, 2013, 00:01

Boycotts are back in fashion. At the pointless end of the spectrum, various online busybodies are urging cinemagoers to stay away from the upcoming film version of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Yes, Mr Scott Card, a practising Mormon, has, in the past, said some very unaccommodating, occasionally hateful things about the campaign for marriage equality. But a boycott hardly seems sensible. We all know the joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer. Can there be anybody stupid enough to believe that the author of the source novel remains the prime creator of any big-budget science fiction film? The book – a sort of juvenile space opera – goes nowhere near Card’s views on gay marriage. You are all, thus, granted permission to see Harrison Ford scowl woodenly at Ben Kingsley.

Much more serious is the brewing reaction to the Russian parliament’s enactment of legislation aimed at suppressing the freedoms of gay, lesbian and transgendered people. One remembers with regret a piece of disingenuous gibberish that useless bigots used to drag out when discussing those folk they rarely referred to as “gay”.
“I don’t care what these people do in the privacy of their own homes,” Mr Golf-Club would say. “But I don’t want them rubbing my face in it.”

Working within that oblique class of small-mindedness, the new law imposes stiff fines on anybody providing information on homosexuality to people under 18. As we all know, it’s being told how to do it that turns people towards the pink side. That’s why Homosexuality for Dummies is such a big seller.

Anyway, the passing of the law has already triggered some counterblasts beyond Russia’s borders. Also citing the refusal to license gay pride events and the harassment of activists, Dan Savage, an influential and witty US columnist, has called for a boycott on Russian goods in general and on vodka in particular. Over the last week, the story gained greater traction when Stephen Fry wrote an open letter suggesting that Russia be stripped of the 2014 winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The vodka boycott almost immediately ran into difficulties. The first brand to find itself being propelled from bars was Stolichnaya. The hashtag #DumpStoli attracted attention on Twitter. The Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village, birthplace of modern gay activism, has announced that it won’t be serving the product. The problem is that, though the ingredients in Stoli may be Russian, the vodka is distilled in Latvia and distributed in the US by William Grant, a Scottish corporation. Absolut is Swedish. Smirnoff is owned by our good friends at Diageo. It looks as if almost all overseas vodka drinkers are already carrying out an accidental boycott of the Russian product.

The campaign to shun – or move – the Winter Olympics cannot be dismissed quite so easily. After all, it wouldn’t be an Olympics without a boycott. We all know about the misunderstandings in 1980 and 1984. In 1976, 22 African nations stayed away from the summer games to protest a South African rugby tour of New Zealand. North Korea did not attend the games in Seoul. As long ago as 2008, Georgia was urging a boycott of Sochi to highlight Russia’s outrages in the South Ossetia conflict.

So Mr Fry and his supporters may get somewhere with their crusade. Referencing the 1936 Games in Berlin, Fry said that Vladimir Putin “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews”.

That sporting boycotts can make a difference is not in doubt. There is no question that the shunning, during the apartheid years, of South Africa – a people almost as obsessed with sport as the Australians – contributed to the eventual liberalisation of that nation. But the question here is whether Russia’s official policy on gay rights is sufficiently debased to make a pariah of the nation.

It’s not enough to point out that there is a depressingly high level of domestic support for the legislation. We may, to quote President Obama on Russia, have “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them”. We are not, however, yet at a situation where comparison with the Nazi persecution of the Jews (and homosexuals, for that matter) is useful. Russia’s laws on same-sex relations seem positively liberal when set beside the situation that existed in this country until as recently as the early 1990s. In the late 1980s, with the ill-remembered section 28, the UK enacted eerily similar laws to the Russian legislation. Go nuclear now and you will have nothing in reserve if the situation does deteriorate into runaway state-approved oppression.

Don’t bet against that happening.

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