The 22nd Winter Olympic Games kick off this week in Sochi, Russia, amid pomp, circumstance, controversy, and concern. On Twitter, journalists are popularizing the “#SochiProblems” hashtag, documenting shoddy and ill-prepared accommodations. Yet the bigger concerns have more to do with human rights than broken doorknobs.
Since the passage of the infamous “Anti-Gay Propaganda” bill in June of last year, international human rights advocates have been horrified by a massive surge in attacks on Russia’s LGBTQ community. Blogs, newspapers, and other media sources—both in mainstream and LGBTQ outlets—have circulated images of bloodied protesters, videos documenting the torture of young gay men, and stories of people and families living in fear for their lives. The situation is assuredly dire, and activists on the ground anticipate that things will only get worse once the Games are over and the international spotlight has faded.
But with an anticipated television audience of 3 billion viewers (and at a cost of over $50 billion), the games go on. More than 2,800 athletes from 87 different countries have tirelessly trained in anticipation of what will—for most—be the pinnacle of their athletic careers. As usual, American athletes are expected to dominate the podium, but the stories that most captivate the world frequently come from the perpetual underdogs—the ones with no name recognition, no corporate sponsors, and almost no chance of winning.
Like the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, competitors from countries in traditionally warmer climates are rare anomalies at the Winter Olympics, and tend to garner a sort of curious fascination from journalists and spectators. In 2014, five such “underdog” athletes hail from Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Togo, and Zimbabwe)—a continent that has yet to claim a single medal in the entire history of the Winter Olympic Games.
Africa, however, deserves more attention than a mere puff piece about its underdog Olympians. 38 African countries currently have laws that criminalize homosexuality, and the atmosphere for LGBTQ people in many countries is growing worse.
Such was not always the case: Legal restrictions on same-sex relationships are primarily a product of European colonial rule, prior to which homosexuality was widely documented as having been normalized and accepted. In recent years, however, a wave of neo-colonial influence, led by right-wing U.S. evangelicals, has led to a resurgence of anti-homosexuality legislation and public sentiment.
Certainly, many human rights groups, queer activists, and social justice organizers have recognized and begun to challenge the exportation of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and ideology. But our collective efforts—well-intentioned as they may be—have also included some less effective, even harmful models. Like many mainstream Western gay and lesbian movements, the evolving face of the international LGBTQ justice movement has struggled to figure out what it means to approach this work with an intersectional analysis and ethos, and how to responsibly and accountably move toward a vision of collective liberation that doesn’t exclude anyone—a vision that understands the indelible link between LGBTQ justice and racial justice, economic justice, disability justice, etc.
Anti-LGBTQ activity in Russia is a distinct, albeit interrelated trend, providing both a model for new legislation and a useful distraction for African governments pursuing similar agendas. Within months of the Duma’s near-unanimous approval of the Anti-Gay Propaganda law, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, signed a new law that not only prescribes prison sentences of up to 14 years for openly LGBTQ people, but also bans same-sex marriage, intimate relationships with a member of the same sex, and gay organizations. Uganda’s Parliament passed its own anti-homosexuality law, formerly known as the “kill the gays” bill, which is awaiting President Museveni’s signature. Similar measures are currently in the works in Liberia, and rapidly gaining momentum.
Unfortunately, these regressive moves have gone largely unnoticed, thanks to the enormous protective shadow of Mother Russia—and thanks to the preferential treatment of Western activists who notoriously favor other Westerners within the confines of restrictive and destructive “issue silos.” Meanwhile, in the U.S. and around the world, the suffering of indigenous people, incarcerated people, undocumented people, transgender people, poor people, homeless and underhoused people, people with disabilities, and people of color continues to go unnoticed. This contrast is felt in mainstream gay and lesbian movements that perceive marriage equality as an end goal, in the current neglect of LGBTQ rights abuses in Africa and other parts of the Global South, in every host city for the Olympic Games (sites of perennial contention that notoriously displace local communities, exploit and drain public resources, and suppress marginalized voices), and in the lived experiences of individuals who dare to claim more than one oppressed identity.
The privileging of some above others fractures our community as a whole, and as long as we are divided, the Right will continue winning. So in the coming weeks, as the world’s attention is captivated by displays of strength, agility, speed, and athleticism, let’s not forget that for every athlete that mounts the podium, there’s an underdog with a story to tell, too. For every glitzy, star-studded media campaign launched by well-financed LGBTQ organizations, there’s a grassroots group struggling to pay its bills. For every story about Russia, there’s a less-publicized campaign to make life worse for folks in Uganda, Cameroon, Jamaica, and elsewhere. In the end, regardless of who wins gold, we all lose when injustice endures.