Russian anti-gay legislation sparks critical thought--Sochi and beyond

Wednesday, May 28, 2021

Liz Smith

Recent events in Russia are certainly at the forefront of a number of important geopolitical conversations. Things that might stand out include: the detaining of the 'Arctic 30' Greenpeace activists, granting temporary asylum to American whistleblower Edward Snowden, as well as the recent military intervention in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. Of course, the international spectacle of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games was, indeed, on the public radar, and Putin's enactment of the so-called 'anti-gay propaganda law' immediately before the Sochi Opening Ceremonies caught the attention of the masses. It was this topic that constituted the framework for a vibrant discussion by a roundtable of political and historical experts at Sunday night's Congress panel put on by the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), entitled "Sochi and beyond: Russia's anti-gay legislation, human rights and the practice of history".

Erica Fraser, a Soviet historian, discussed the popular social narrative of Russia's history of repression which seems to inform public perceptions of the enactment of their anti-gay law as 'something to be expected'.

"Public discourse seems to say 'Well of course Russia would do this! [anti-gay legislation].' We like to 'other' them as 'Oh, typical of those Russians'", says Fraser.

Fraser's presentation sought to challenge these assumptions we in North America in particular have of Russia, and also recognize that Russian history does not seem to suggest that its homophobic legislation was inevitable, but rather something Putin seems to have actively chosen to pursue his own peculiar version of nationalism and modernity-- one not guided by the pursuit of human rights.

"I want us to be cautious about calling out Russia as exceptional in its history of homosexual repression" says Fraser.

Similar sentiment was relayed by historian Lyle Dick. He reminded the crowd that, while certainly not on the scale of Russian oppression to the LGBTQ community, we can draw familiar parallels of the state-sanctioned inequity, oppression and hate crimes in Russia to Canada's not-so-distant past that has and continues to repress sexual freedom through more covert means. It is then concerning that we as a society seem to be concerned with sexual inequity when it is 'out there' (as the anti-gay legislation became headlines because of the grandiosity of the Sochi Olympics), but seem to either not recognize or disregard equally legitimate LGBTQ political repression concerns in Canada.

Michael Dawson, professor of history at St. Thomas University, went on to discuss the intimate interconnection of sports and politics in his discussion of the Sochi Olympics-- even as the International Olympic Committee has historically maintained that they are mutually exclusive. As he demonstrated in his talk however, the Olympics have always constituted highly-sexualized spaces, and there are a number of historical examples of activist protests and boycotts in the lead-up to various Olympics' in response to some social issue. Recently, Sochi protest has become particularly commodified-- for example, activists expressing their contempt for Putin's anti-gay propaganda law by purchasing "Principle 6" merchandise from American Apparel. The shirt reads: "Principle 6: Sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise".

The panel ended with a discussion by CHA President Dominique Marshall, centering more broadly around on transnational NGOs and social movements in fighting for Human Rights for sexual and gender minorities.