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Sochi's 'Gay Olympics' Tell Us More About Our Own Prejudices Than Russian Homophobia

26/02/2014 11:03 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

In the past few weeks, the Western world has delighted in Russia's flamboyant - and allegedly rather gay - opening ceremony to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Slate magazine, following the lead of many others, declared these the 'gayest Olympics ever', and went on to insist that Russians have an 'intrinsically gay sensibility' (whatever that is actually supposed to imply). This paper, The Huffington Post, labelled the opening ceremony 'super gay', on account of rainbow seating and a performance Queen's 'We Will Rock You'.

I can appreciate the irony of Russia's ceremony enacting many Western-held notions of what it means to be gay - or more specifically, what it means to be a gay man. And I understand that, in the face of the extreme brutality of LGBT oppression in Russia, these are moments of light relief in a much wider struggle. But raised eyebrows in the West are just as telling of our own prejudices as they are of Russia's homophobia.

It has already been pointed out that labelling the opening ceremony 'gay' conflates gay with camp, relying on hackneyed stereotypes of gay life. It's apparently gay to like certain music, gay to perform ballet, gay to wear bright clothes, and gay to perform in uniforms. These caricatures of gay life, rather than making Russia 'intrinsically gay', indicate how constrained masculine identities are in the Western world.

The result of this has repercussions for both male and female gender identities, regardless of sexual orientation. In the first place, we in the West are clearly primarily concerned with male homosexuality here. Putin's apparent homoeroticism has been the subject of much amusement, for instance. The focus of our interest is paralleled by the images we've seen of vigilante mobs attacking Russia's LGBT community, who appear to be fundamentally targeting gay men as well. The pseudo-homosexuality of techno duo t.A.T.u. evidently didn't concern the Russian establishment, perhaps because lesbianism is less threatening than men who like men. Lesbianism in the West is similarly the subject of intrigue, and often allure, so long as the women involved conform to general beauty standards. This is in no way to say that lesbians do not face adversity. But the idea of a straight man acting 'gay' is funny, whereas a woman who behaves in a 'lesbian' way is considered to be enticing.

It is alarming that we, in our righteous indignation, find it amusing that a professedly straight man could engage in 'gay' activities. Crying at a film, riding bareback, or wearing flamboyant clothes remain strictly female or gay (male) activities. Men who affirm that they are straight, but dress in a certain way or carry themselves in a particular manner, are subject to endless questioning regarding their true sexual orientation. Equally, gay men are expected to perform and reaffirm their sexuality on a daily basis. Men who in whatever respect do not conform to hetero- or homosexual norms of masculinity are ridiculed.

How progressive are our standards if we can't believe a man could participate in any of the abovementioned activities without being attracted to men? I remember being in India and seeing young men walking around in public holding hands. It was amusing to me at the time, given that this occurred in a notoriously homophobic society. 'They're holding hands!', we would giggle. 'They don't realise how gay they're being!' Putin has been subject to similar criticisms, evidently not realising that cuddling animals, touching another man's arm, and riding horses indicates his desire for other men. I don't want to excuse Putin, but is there anything innate about being a straight man that means you shouldn't do these things? The answer is no.

Our strategies for responding to homophobia in other parts of the world are not only hypocritical but counterproductive, with consequences both at home and abroad. The barriers between male and female identity are still very much intact, and we need to work harder to broaden the category of masculinity in particular. Straight men shouldn't have to refrain from certain activities for fear that their sexual orientation will be dragged into the discussion, and neither should gay men be under pressure to perform and be 'fabulous' all the time.

Abroad, we need to strike a balance between mockery and condemnation, prioritising our ultimate aims over indignation. Preaching or ridiculing other countries is unlikely to generate positive results. A more sensitive and measured approach, that begins with expanding (and protecting) LGBT rights, is the first step. We must recognise that this is part of a much larger process, one that is not confined to Russia, India or other distant parts of the world. It includes reassessing our own standards of masculinity and femininity, and our assumptions about gay and straight, so that one day we won't snigger if straight men like show tunes, tight jeans, or rainbow flags.