I’d like to take a moment to thank Russia.
As you have no doubt already realized, perhaps because your soaked-as-a-sponge friend was uncharacteristically urging you to boycott vodka, Russia is acting a fool. You know, a fool that is a half goosestep away from genocide. LGBT activists and rational, normal people have already been furious about Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda laws,” recently passed prohibitions that so loosely define propaganda you could probably find yourself fined, arrested or worse (judging by a spate of highly publicized anti-gay hate crimes and bloody photos emerging from recent rallies) for “propagandizing” gayness by, I don’t know, sharing a dessert at a restaurant or leaving the house in your “vintage” Destiny’s Child concert tee.
But this week Russian leaders made it clear that the law would not be suspended for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014, putting an unknown (but presumably pretty big) number of gay and ally athletes and international tourists at risk. The International Olympic Committee, which explicitly states in its charter that discrimination is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement,” has laughably trumpeted vague and contradictory “assurances” from the Russian government that they’ll actually leave foreign gays alone. So I guess we can all just kick back and enjoy the games now. Sure, “governments across the world have different laws,” as NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus nonchalantly articulated things when pressed about the network’s plans to cover the Olympics, and even laws that categorically criminalize the existence of an entire swath of humanity should not interfere with such an important global tradition celebrating the beautiful interconnectedness of all humanity. Wait, huh?
Make no mistake, these laws are horrible. But Russia’s tone-deaf, intransigent decision to continue upholding them through the Olympics is maybe the best thing that could have happened with regard to them. Two reasons.
The first is selfish. An Olympics boycott movement is taking shape, which means I am now able to cloak my complete disinterest in the games in a grand political statement: “I’m sorry, could we turn this off? I’m usually as riveted by the nail-biting sport of curling as the next red-blooded American, but I can’t offer spectatorship to a media event that stands on the broken backs of my downtrodden brothers. Could we change the channel? No worries, I appreciate your understanding. Thanks so much.”
[Obscures lips with wine glass, mouths silent “Yessss…” into glass.]
Seriously. I’m not someone who outright dislikes watching sports. But, call me a traitor to the indestructible human spirit and its limitless potential: the Olympics bore the shit out of me and I’m sick of pretending they don’t. Why you gotta be on all the time, Olympics? And why do all these fair-weather fans of physical prowess gotta be acting all personally invested in sports they never heard of before? I have nothing but great respect and admiration for the feats of strength, awe-inspiring grace of movement, fantastic flexibility and steely mental mettle exhibited by Olympics athletes. But like a lot of things I have great respect and admiration for, like the ability to solve really long math equations, I have very little interest in watching.
Although I do like the figure skating. What?
But in all seriousness, there’s another and more important (can you believe it?) reason why upholding the anti-gay laws during the Olympics may be the best thing that can happen within a horrible set of circumstances. Most people do love the Olympics. They watch, millions of them, around the world. And even if they somehow manage to avoid or ignore the increasingly cacophonous outrage leading up to the games, it will be impossible to do so when something happens, and big or small it will, that draws attention to the law once the Olympics are underway. There will be a public demonstration of some kind; someone will be fined or detained; or some brave athlete will find a way to reference the issue. It’ll happen. You can’t televise a racquetball game in a concentration camp and not, at some point, inadvertently catch one of the prisoners in the live shot.
And when that happens, it will be a good thing. We need that right now. I’ve been covering LGBT issues for fewer years than many, but still long enough to see a sea change in the urgency associated with the fight for equal rights. I wouldn’t say people have become complacent; that suggests some conscious abdication of caring. It’s more that they’ve become increasingly and sincerely unaware that things aren’t okay everywhere. Self-interest is a powerful thing, and as the equal rights victories have piled on in America, it has become easier to lose sight of the larger global fight for an entire community. Hell, we even run the risk of losing sight of the national fight. It has flummoxed me how the post-DOMA repeal has fostered a media narrative that somehow suggests the issue of gay marriage issue is now “over” in America, where it remains illegal in 37 out of 50 states. Even LGBT people, smart ones I interview for stories, seem remarkably ready to move on and let their comrades in Idaho fend for themselves. (“Or just, like, move,” I can hear my privilege-enjoying activist interviewee think loudly, with characteristic Blue State snobbishness.)
If Russia is going to insist on criminalizing gay people, arresting their allies, and fostering a climate that encourages heinous hate crimes, then let them do it in broad daylight. Let them do it with the cameras on and the world watching. Let it open gay and straight eyes to the way LGBT people are treated not just in Russia, but other countries around the world: including those where they face state-sanctioned execution for their “crimes.” Let Lady Gaga make a music video about it, if she has to. Because the more people watch, the more people will care, and the more we’ll all be rooting for the right team.
I believe that will happen. I may not be an Olympics fan, but that whole indomitable human spirit thing? I’ll drink (non-Russian vodka) to that.