Today as I took my daily sauna (not spoiled, just a Yooper) I listened to NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” which I love. However, one the segments on the normally very liberal show managed to get under my skin. One of the week’s questions was about the newly appointed US delegation to the Sochi Olympics. President Obama, like several other world leaders, has decided (wisely, I think) not to attend the Olympics. In his place he is sending a delegation of three openly gay and lesbian former Olympians: Billie Jean King (tennis), Brian Boitano (figure skating, rendered in the amazing .gif above) and Caitlin Cahow (hockey.) This move was immediately supported by the Human Rights Campaign, indisputably the most power gay lobby in Washington. (Note, I say ‘gay’ and not LGBTQ on purpose, but that is a matter for another blog post.)
For those who are perhaps unaware, Russia passed an “Anti-Gay Propaganda” law last year which essentially makes being gay and, in some interpretations of the law, failing to report “a gay,” a crime. This law has had immediate and tragic effects, sparking the repression of LGBTQ activists around the country and essentially declaring open season on Russia’s LGBTQ community. Recent attacks have included the online seduction of gay youths by neo-nazis who then torture them on tape with total impunity. Calls to boycott the Olympics altogether (which I initially supported) have been quieted by Russia’s LGBTQ community, as the failure of the Olympics might further situate them as scapegoats, a viewpoint which I had failed to consider in my initial blind rage.
So, getting back to the issue at hand, what was it about “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me?” that irked me? The discourse around this delegation is that it is the ultimate “middle finger” to Putin and his anti-LGBTQ policies. Media response in general, and not just on WWDTM, has been filled with a gleeful electricity. “We’ll show them. We’ll send all these gays. That’ll show’em,” they laugh, tenting their fingers à la Mr. Burns. And I get it; I do. I would love to show Mr. Putin a middle finger or five. What bothers me is the idea that the very “gayness” of these athletes is somehow being weaponized. In turn, I think it somehow furthers the notion that there is something noxious or extraordinary about the very fact of existing as gay or lesbian. It turns these athletes, and in turn all of us, into tokens. Perhaps in the case these tokens will be used for a greater good, but the tokenization is undeniable.
Would it not have been just as powerful for President Obama to refuse to send a delegation, making his reasons clear and public? Something like:
“Dear Vlad, I can’t send a delegation to the Olympics this year because I cannot vouch for the safety of all of its members due to your ridiculous laws. Sincerely, Barack.”
Somehow in this version, it seems like the onus is on Putin to respond and not on the athletes in the delegation to be on the offensive. It shows that the President, and by proxy our country, recognizes the intrinsic humanity of gays and lesbians enough to not tokenize them or use them as pawns in a political game.
On this point, I must confess that I am also skeptical of the U.S.’s “ally when I wanna be” stance on LGBTQ rights. First, I should be clear about my understanding that we do not live in a monarchy, and that Barack Obama is only one man. Nonetheless, his support of LGBTQ issues has seemed as politically shrewd as it has seemed genuine. For example, his decision to finally “evolve” on the issue of marriage equality just two months before the 2012 election is hard to interpret as a mere coincidence.
While I don’t doubt that Obama is better friend to our community than Vladimir Putin, I’m significantly more inclined to hear from it some of the other world leaders who have chosen not to attend the games, most notably France’s François Hollande, who ran his campaign on a platform the included staunch support (and immediate legalization) of marriage equality, and Germany’s Joachim Gauck, a former civil rights activist in East Germany who currently presides over a country that just legalized a third gender option on government documents. If Obama is truly the friend to our community that, somewhere deep inside, I suspect that he is, he needs to stop making statements like “marriage equality is best left up to the states.” Why not lead by example, especially when you can’t be re-elected? And why not stick it to a few homophobes, like Putin, in the process?
I recognize that Obama, and the country, are in a difficult situation not entirely of their own making. Both boycotting and attending the Sochi Olympics have positive and negative consequences that are as difficult to predict as they are potentially lethal. Nonetheless, I think that sending gay and lesbian activists as a “fuck you” to Russia paradoxically serves to further the belief that there is something there to fear, both in Russia and here. There must be a way for the Obama administration to make its objection to Russia’s Anti-Gay law known without tokenizing gay and lesbian athletes on the basis of their sexuality. Especially when these athletes are still being denied so many basic civil rights in our own country, it seems in poor taste to weaponize their sexuality in defense of an ideal that we, as a country, are not quite sure of ourselves yet.
Have an opinion? Leave it in the comments section! I haven’t worked this out for myself yet, and I’d love to know what you think!