As the Sochi Olympics began, many politicians and multinationals have statements supporting LGBT rights and condemning Russia’s homophobic government. But Colin Wilson raises some doubts about these new friends of equality.
The opening of the Sochi games saw an unprecedented wave of support for LGBT struggles against Russian government homophobia. Google and the Guardian both incorporated rainbows into their logos. Channel 4 produced a camp “bear mountain” video. AT&T condemned the Russian government.
February is LGBT History Month – and the month’s official magazine was distributed with the Sunday Telegraph. It begins with a letter of support from David Cameron, reminding everyone that his government had legalised gay marriage. Adverts promote Santander, EDF and JP Morgan, who reassure readers: “We support your right to be yourself.” (Banks as champions of individual self-expression!) The front cover condemns Russia, as does a back page advert from Stonewall inviting donations for their international work.
The White House tells the same takes, stressing President Obama’s commitment to LGBT equality, his track record in repealing the ban on LGBT people serving openly in the US military, and in ending the homophobic Defence of Marriage Act.
Yet Cameron voted against gay adoption in 2002, against repeal of Section 28 in 2003 and against giving lesbians the right to in vitro fertilisation treatment in 2008. Obama opposed same-sex marriage during the 2008 presidential race. Both leaders have no doubt changed their public positions in response to ongoing shifts in public opinion which make homophobia a liability. But there’s no sign that they favour changes needed for more fundamental LGBT equality.
Last week the Observer reported that LGBT asylum seekers were asked to give details of their sexual activities, and to respond to questions like: “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?” Asylum seekers are often deported on the grounds that they cannot prove that they are LGBT.
Meanwhile, eight US states have laws which ban the “promotion of homosexuality” – similar to those in Russia. The US imprisons more of its population than any other country on earth – including a disproportionate number of black people – yet condoms are available in a tiny minority of prisons, so that infections including HIV are spread through gay sex. In both Britain and the US, while attitudes towards LGBT people have improved enormously, experiences of abuse and violence remain common.
All this means that we have to challenge the dominant narrative in the media – that countries like Britain and America accept LGBT people and have supportive governments, while countries like Russia or those in the Middle East and Africa are ignorant and homophobic. On the contrary, there is still plenty of homophobia and transphobia in Britain. Far from Africa being universally homophobic, South Africa was the first country in the world to include lesbian and gay rights in its constitution.
We can’t accept a neo-colonial account of the world which pits “civilised” Europe and America against “barbaric” Russia, Asia and Africa. We can’t agree with organisers of a protest against Russia outside Downing Street last year when they claimed success because David Cameron had raise LGBT issues at an international summit. Cameron is not going to liberate LGBT people in Russia or anyone else.
While we welcome the fact that people have come out to protest against homophobia, we also have to reject the politics that dominates the protests – a willingness to side more or less uncritically with “our” government against the governments of other countries. Obama has killed over 2,000 people with drones; Cameron has reduced thousands in Britain to dependence on food banks. It’s absurd to regard them as champions of human rights.
We should treat corporate support for LGBT people with the same scepticism. Is Google a progressive company? Not according to unions representing the company’s security guards. Google’s outsources security to a company that employs 80% of its staff part-time without sick pay. Google runs a fleet of private buses that ferry senior employees, typically paid $100,000 a year or more, from downtown San Francisco to work in Silicon Valley. (After protests and attacks, the buses now have security guards.)
Those senior employees can pay high rents, forcing others who can’t afford such prices out of San Francisco. The average price of a flat in the city is now an extraordinary $3,000 a month.
This widening class divide affects LGBT people too – San Francisco has always been a refuge for those fleeing the homophobic mid-West, but now that refuge is increasingly accessible only to the rich. Meanwhile, at Apple, openly gay Tim Cooke is the best-paid chief executive in the world, receiving a total of $378 million in 2012.
It’s only recently that openly LGBT people have been able to occupy such positions as multinational executives, army officers, senior civil servants and so on. But this is a growing trend, particularly for gay men. It’s a positive development that more people can come out, but this also means increasing class division among LGBT people, and the growth of an openly LGBT section of the ruling class.
The current chair of Pride London, for example, is Michael Salter. His day job is political head of broadcasting at 10 Downing Street. Of course, people like Tim Cooke and Michael Salter oppose LGBT oppression, but typically as a single issue campaign that leaves the rest of capitalism entirely untouched.
This phenomenon – the emergence of out LGBT sections of ruling and middle classes in the context of neoliberalism – explains the curious development of pro-LGBT rhetoric from multinationals and Tory prime ministers. Their approach involves isolating the fight against oppression from the struggle against capitalism as a whole, or at least for reforms under captialism. Instead we are encouraged to “accept diversity” while capitalism presides over huge and increasing disparities of wealth and power, between nations and between individuals within them.
This strategy can win better lives for a tiny minority of privileged LGBT people. It has little to offer the rest of us. We need to look to the struggles of million of ordinary people, LGBT and straight. After all, it has been those struggles that have changed attitudes in the last forty years, and made the LGBT-friendly corporate and out gay CEO possible in the first place.