The New Republic's Julia Ioffe argues in an article Thursday that a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year would be “useless” because it would have little effect on stopping the violence and discrimination against gay people there. She goes even further by saying “the outrage” is useless, too. Russians are, according to her, “strangely retrograde” when it comes to homosexuality—although one paragraph later she claims that homophobia is “common pretty much everywhere.”
According to Ioffe, the boycott may in fact be counterproductive: Since disapproval of homosexuality is so strong in Russia, any attempt to boycott the Olympics would be simply dismissed as foreigners attempting to infringe on Russian values. Ioffe concludes that Russia should be left to deal with its own homophobia, “as disgusting as these views are.” “This kind of wide, deep social acceptance of an idea cannot be changed from the outside; societies just don't work like that,” she writes. “Just as Europe or Canada screaming at America to legalize gay marriage or to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or to remove homosexuality from the DSM is not what got America to do any of those things. “
It may be true that Ioffe, who has lived in Russia and is considered an expert on issues there, has a strong grasp of Russian cultural attitudes. What she seems to lack—sorely so—is an understanding of why so many activists around the world are calling for a Sochi boycott.
Few, if any, of the people demanding a boycott have argued that this would “end” LGBT discrimination in Russia. Most of us understand that Russian antipathy towards LGBT rights is deep seated. In an article I wrote for Salon a few days ago, I also made the case that, at least in the short term, Putin stands to gain from all the outrage because it reinforces Russians' ideas about how unique they are and further underscores the country's independence from the West.
This does not mean the calls for boycotts are useless. Labeling justifiable outrage and calls for justice as useless and counterproductive smacks of blaming the victim. It's not our calls for boycotts that may cause an increase in violence against the LGBT community in Russia, but rather the law which Putin signed in July—a law that has, in effect, codified Russian homophobia and stripped the Russian citizens of the one way that they could ever expect to effectively combat it.
Ioffe's assertions that American attitudes towards LGBT rights have only recently changed is true. In fact, the change has come at an astonishing pace. What she fails to mention, however, is that this change only happened because of gay visibility, starting with more and more gays and lesbians coming out to their friends and families. Prominent celebrities and politicians revealing their sexuality, along with LGBT characters in movies and on TV, helped de-stigmatize the gay community in the eyes of so many Americans, who began to see us less as predators and AIDS victims and more as neighbors, cousins, coworkers.
This is precisely what the Russian propaganda bill denies its citizens. By criminalizing speech advocating “non-traditional sexual lifestyles,” Russia has denied its LGBT citizens the same path toward progress that so many societies in the West have taken. Look no further than the many reported cases of Russians who spoke out against the ban before it was ratified and who were later fired from their jobs. This is the reality on the ground. And if the gays there cannot speak for themselves without fear of imprisonment, it is up to those of us outside to speak for them.
Ioffe's attempt to draw parallels between Western efforts to protest Russian policy and America dragging its feet on DADT and same-sex marriage seems, at best, misguided. (Also, were Canada and Europe screaming at the U.S. to pass gay marriage and end DADT? If so, they should have screamed louder. I must not have heard them.) If Russia were only denying its citizens the right to marry or serve in the military, I doubt many people would even consider a boycott. What Russia is doing is denying its people their only recourse to counter anti-gay stereotypes and prejudice. This law, along with the banning of pride parades and gay adoptions, smacks of a growing intolerance that many of us worry will only escalate.
In the history of the fight for civil rights, it was crucial for those who felt they had a moral imperative to speak up in the face of injustice not to be dissuaded by arguments that their actions may be counterproductive. Certainly in many states in the South, the fight for African American rights was counterproductive in the short term. The argument almost always rings hollow.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the boycott—and one not mentioned enough—is to prevent Russia from staging the kind of sanitized, white-washed, faux-tolerant games that Germany did in 1936. Certainly the parallels exist. In Berlin, Hitler managed to put Germany's best face forward and hide his intentions well from the rest of the world. Hitler may have been embarrassed by Jesse Owens' heroism, but it didn't stop the campaign against the Jews. Likewise a gay Owens in Sochi will hardly cause Putin to reconsider his policies. Instead, Russia will put on its $50 billion pageant, and the world media—while acknowledging the gay issue—will still proclaim the games were a sight to behold. And LGBT Russians will continue to suffer in silence.
The chances of a boycott are slim. Likely because the one argument which Ioffe didn't make is perhaps the most persuasive—denying the rights of the athletes to participate. I understand that the games will likely go on—as do most people calling for a boycott—but I don't think our outrage is useless, or unproductive. At the very least, it has brought worldwide attention to the treatment of LGBT people in Russia. Putin may not change his position on the issue, and the discrimination will certainly continue, but the gays in Russia will know they are not alone. This alone is justification enough, because there is one thing that is almost always more useless than outrage: silence.