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In June the Russian Parliament passed legislation against the promotion of homosexuality among minors, prompting an international outcry against the seemingly increasingly punitive Russian Government, the actions of which many conjoin to the return of Vladimir Putin as the country’s President.

It follows reports of hostility and hate crimes towards sexual minorities, a seeming reluctance of the authorities to adequately protect such groups, as well as a report by equalities group Ilga Europe which listed Russia as the hardest of all 49 European states for a gay person to live in.

In such circumstances it is understandable that many will rush to place their foot onto the stirrup of their high horse and condemn the situation in Russia. But before leaping aboard this trusty stallion it is as well to check that all the straps and belts are correctly in place, otherwise we risk making a rather painful and foolish looking fall.

It is a fall that we’re used to making with regard to Russia. So quick are we to point fingers, to jeer at the perceived backwardness of our vodka-swilling comrades, and to leap onto the offensive against their macho leader, that we often forget to consider the full facts of the case. Or indeed to remember our own similar experiences on not-too-distant history.

In any discussion of a contentious topic such as this, it is important to state your views clearly at the start, even if you think they should go without saying, so I’ll lay my cards on the table.

I do not under any circumstances condone discrimination or violence against a person on the basis of their sexuality. I believe that police should uphold the law and defend all citizens regardless of their opinions or sexual desires. And I do not support the so-called “gay propaganda” law which has received so much scrutiny and attention.

I do however believe that when you are trying to put across an argument, you should make sure that you have researched what you’re talking about and you should not warp, fabricate or misrepresent in an attempt to strengthen your case. I also happen to think that there are not always universal rights and wrongs, that ‘we’ don’t always get things right ourselves. Going around the world telling other people how to live their lives is dangerously close to the Imperialism of the 19th Century that we should have moved beyond.

In light of this, I was most impressed by the rare moment of clarity shown by International Olympic Committee Chair Jacques Rogge, who did something very bold and asked the Russians for a clearer translation of the law before commenting further. The legislation as it stands is notoriously vague and arguably open to far too much interpretation by judges. It is a fair criticism, but of course one that prompts detractors to always present a worst-case scenario.

The storm over the Russian legislation has been whipped up into a full on cyclone over the last week or so. As usual there was a frenzy to seek extreme responses to the issue before anybody bothered to do their homework.

There were immediate calls to boycott bars that sold Russian vodkas, with Stolichnaya coming under heavy attack. Unfortunately nobody bothered to uncover the vital fact that the Stolichnaya served in UK bars is produced by an entirely independent Latvian-based company which has been in legal wranglings with its Russian namesake for years, and has been frequently critical of Russian domestic policies. The impact that such ill-considered moves could have upon perfectly legitimate businesses and the innocent people that work within them is totally lost upon those carrying placards and re-tweeting calls to revolution.

Then came the call to boycott the Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi next year. Out of nowhere charged Stephen Fry, waving his ‘open letter’ to the Prime Minister and the International Olympic Committee on behalf of everyone on the ‘civilised world’.

The flaws in Fry’s argument

As a former Trustee of Mind, the mental health charity of which Stephen Fry is President, and a certified QI addict, it is hard to express the disappointment I felt when reading his letter. My assumption was that a man of Fry’s undoubted intellect would strive to ensure truth and rational reasoning to support his arguments, rather than drop to the level of gutter-journalism by embellishing his proposition with ludicrous sensationalism and disrespectful comparisons.

Apart from anything else, such elaboration is simply unnecessary. The call for equality is one which does not need to be propped up by exaggerations to make it legitimate. The fact that individuals are beaten because of their sexuality is self-evidently wrong and doesn’t require false amplification.

Nevertheless, Fry jumps into a murky quagmire head-first, comparing Sochi 2014 with Berlin 1936, Putin with Hitler, and the introduction of legislation with the Holocaust. In doing so he both lowers the debate and undermines the argument. Daily Mail columnist Andrew Pierce delivered a hammer-blow to Fry when he said “As one gay man to another, I say to Stephen Fry: You should be ashamed for outrageously distorting the facts surrounding the Holocaust.”

I often wonder how Holocaust survivors feel about constantly being used as the ultimate weapon in any debate. I dare say that many of them, being in their 80s and 90s by now, might be more conservative minded than Mr Fry and possibly unsupportive of the battle they are being wheeled out for. In any case, why compare anti-gay discrimination to anti-semitism when there was plenty of the former in Nazi Germany anyway?

Even without the hyperbole, Fry’s letter is awfully confused, belying a lack of knowledge and logic that is surprising of somebody considered to be one of his generation’s greatest intellectuals.

In passing reference he indicates that Putin should be more like Peter the Great, who wanted Russia to move towards Western values rather than being consigned to what he perceived as Asian backwardness. Fry neglects to tell the reader that it was actually Peter the Great – hardly a shining example of egalitarianism – who first introduced anti-gay legislation in Russia, despite allegedly having a gay relationship. Prior to this, Russia had historically been quite tolerant towards gay relationships. Many argue that far from resolving the west/east confusion in Russia, he is to blame for exacerbating it. Of course the mere fact that he needed to go to great lengths to westernise the country (moving the capital, changing fashions and taxing beards) in an attempt to override a centuries-old and on-going identity crisis, suggests that Russia is not a country easy to convince of its value-affinity with other nations.

Russia is of course also incredibly religious, and the Patriarch of its Orthodox Church has decried the calls for enhanced gay rights as an “apocalyptic” sign of impending “self-destruction”. From our secular island it is very easy to ridicule its spokesman but he represents 150 million followers, and I’m not sure we’d dare ridicule similar comments emanating from other religions. The Orthodox Church has had a long-running problem with sexuality as a whole, not just homosexuality, and is not the only religion to be prudish in such affairs.

 

The West is not unblemished

The West doesn’t have an unblemished record on such issues either. As usual we seek to preach from on-high without recalling the struggles we have had to go through to get to where we are today. Governments, individual politicians and society in general has battled with mixed emotions towards the issue of sexual equality for a long time, and I’d hazard a guess that in many sections of British society the argument is far from over.

Let us not forget that in the UK, the remarkably similar ‘Section 28’ which sought to prevent the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools was only repealed in 2003 after fifteen years as a standard policy of educational institutions. Several members of the current UK Government were ardent supporters of the policy and opposed its abolition. Current Foreign Secretary and former Opposition Leader William Hague, who is now critical of Russia’s human rights record, whipped the Conservative Party to vote against the repeal of Section 28 and sacked front-benchers who refused to do so.  Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron attacked the proposed annulment for being “anti-family”, accusing Tony Blair of wanting to “promote homosexuality in schools” and voted to retain Section 28 in 2003. Cameron has since apologised for this, saying “we may have sometimes been slow and yes, we may have made mistakes.” We seem unable and unwilling to extend this level of leniency beyond our own borders.

The campaign against the repeal of Section 28 was given added prominence by the support of Sir Brian Souter, Chairman of Stagecoach and groups such as the Salvation Army and the Muslim Council of Britain. I presume that Mr Fry wasn’t calling on people to boycott coaches and charity shops, nor do I imagine he was brave enough to tackle the issue with Britain’s Muslims.

Across the globe, the issue is very much a hot potato. Seventy-six countries in the world still consider homosexuality to be a crime, in some cases punishable by death. The United States’ favourite Middle Eastern brother, Saudi Arabia, is one such country. But I presume we’re not calling for a boycott of petrol stations and oil-powered modes of transport?

Elsewhere in what Fry pretentiously refers to as ‘the civilised world’ things aren’t a bed of pink roses either. In America laws against sodomy have only been deemed unconstitutional since 2003, with several states continuing to enforce them regardless and the US Military continuing to court-marshal those found guilty of “unnatural carnal copulation” until 2011. Twenty-nine US States do not have legislation against LGBT discrimination in employment law. Yet Fry is so enamoured with America that he produced a six episode documentary of his travels across it in a London cab. He listed Kentucky as one of his favourite states, despite its population being one of the least supportive of same-sex rights according to a 2011 poll. He is happy enough to have a clear separation of issues here, so why not elsewhere?

Many countries in North America and Europe are currently undergoing debates over issues such as same-sex marriage and adoption just like in the UK. In some southern European countries like Italy, same-sex couples do not have equal rights. Permissiveness of equal rights declines the further east you go, Russia being a natural step along that (lack of) progression.

It is unarguable that although such countries may struggle to overcome issues, at least they’re moving in the right direction whilst Russia heads off on an opposite path. Nevertheless, the variation amongst countries and regions on all forms of discrimination clearly illustrates that there is no universally accepted truth.

 

Should the Olympics be a political platform?

It is another question entirely whether events such as the Olympics should be used as political platforms, with nations and people that we (assuming as always that ‘we’ run the show) disagree with prevented from taking part. After all, wasn’t one of the big things we rattled on about last year that the Olympics should be all about celebrating diversity? I’m afraid that if we want to be diverse, we have to accept the inclusion of those we dislike and disagree with.

The hosting of a sports event is not a symbol of the World’s undivided approval of that country’s social, cultural and political stance. Of course many were critical of the Olympics being held in China, where rights and democracy is arguably more of a problem than it is in Russia, but I don’t recall Fry being among them. In 2002 the Winter Olympics was held in Salt Lake City (which rather bizarrely Fry suggests as an alternative to Sochi), international capital of Mormonism, which has had its own battles with sexual and racial equality, and considers the enactment of homosexuality to be a sin.  In Qatar, host to the FIFA World Cup in 2022, homosexuality is banned and sodomy is punishable by up to three years imprisonment.  And what about us? What if nations had started boycotting London 2012 because of our support for the Iraq War or our occupation of various disputed Overseas Territories? Indeed, why shouldn’t countries that oppose sexual equality boycott events in those that support it?

Then there is the question of the actual effectiveness of a boycott. The decision of sixty-five countries not to send athletes to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan simply sparked a stereotypically Cold War tit-for-tat exchange, with Communist countries boycotting LA 1984. But surely the most effective stand against discrimination was when Jessie Owen undermined Hitler’s Aryan dream by winning four Olympic Golds in Berlin 1936.

If individual athletes feel strongly enough to boycott a sporting event themselves or to make personal symbolic gestures as in the case of the ‘black power’ salute at the 1968 Olympics, they’re quite welcome to do so, and I’d understand their decision. But I don’t see why celebrities and armchair tweeters should be the ones trying to make that decision for them. They aren’t the ones who have been training and competing their whole lives for this one opportunity, and why should that chance be spoilt by a piece of legislation thousands of miles away which they played no role in and has no relevance to their everyday lives?

I’d suggest that if Stephen Fry and others really want to make a difference and improve the plight of their fellows in Russia, they should pay more attention to truth, cast aside their imperialist notions of universal values, and consider whether their easy-to-command call to action will actually help or hinder their long-term goals.

 

– Richard Royal is Chairman of Westminster Russia Forum which will host a discussion on LGBT Rights in Russia with a panel of speakers including Peter Tatchell on 10th September (visit their website for details) Direct Link

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