19/02/2014 10:19 GMT | Updated 19/04/2014 06:59 BST

Swallowing Hard Truths: Russia, Britain, and LGBT Rights

It might not be very wintry here in the UK, but we're deep in the Winter Olympics season, with just under a week left of Olympic action, and just seventeen days away from the beginning of the Winter Paralympics (I'm uncharacteristically excited to see how ice sledge hockey works).

Yet the Sochi 2014 games have been overshadowed in the western world by what is best described as a rather loud, passive-aggressive mumbling on Russia's recent 'anti-gay laws'.

Before we go any further, we need to explain what these new laws actually do. A lot of people have understood it as making it "illegal to be gay in Russia", which is certainly not true. Human Rights Watch translates it as banning:

disseminating among minors information promoting the "attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relationships" and providing a "distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships."

This use of "nontraditional" is somewhat ambiguous, and it can't accurately be judged until several cases have made their way through Russian courts to create a precedent.

Of course, this still leaves Russia pretty deep in the moral cowpat. Or should I say the Russian government? In a Facebook rant, a friend of mine claimed that this anti-gay legislation "has been met with overwhelming public support", which doesn't seem surprising - Russia has the largest neo-Nazi following in the world, which instigates a lot of violence toward the LGBT minority, alongside many other minority groups.

It's been proposed that, since it's popular in Russian law, it's not the job of the Western world to change it. This is ridiculous on many levels. Firstly, a human rights violation is a human rights violation, regardless of whether anyone, majority or minority, elite or common, thinks it's a good thing. If you like your human rights, then you have to challenge any threat to those rights, no matter how far away it seems.

On that matter, I find it curious that there's been no challenge to the awful state of LGBT rights in Qatar, where we'll soon be holding the Summer Olympics; where we'll be holding the FIFA World Cup; where same-sex relations are simply illegal for men. (Curiously, not so for women; perhaps the lesbian porn industry is worth too much to the Qatari economy.)

Not only are we supporting Qatar through the allocation of sporting events, but our government are also looking to give them even more money. That old bloke from a couple of weeks ago is in Qatar as I write this post. At a time when immigration sparks fierce debate, Qataris are being allowed to travel to the UK without a visa. The Russian people, it seems, are being unfairly singled out by the western media.

Rainbow pavement outside Russian Embassy

Pavement painted in rainbow style as a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Helsinki. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, I couldn't actually find any support for Putin's laws - just reports of protests and support from conservative Americans. Perhaps that says something about our media coverage of the laws; I can't say for sure.

This makes me think that the law has passed by in Russia without the debate over it lasting too long, but with a few hardcore protesters still toughing it out, much like our coalition's NHS reforms.

If we look further back, parallels could be drawn with our own anti-gay laws, dating from 1988. In that same year, we took it upon ourselves to host the worldwide campaign for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, who I'm sure doesn't need to be introduced as a campaigner for human rights and equality.

Our anti-gay laws, which were much more direct than Russia's are now, weren't repealed until 2003; after the original attempt at repeal was thrown out by our government in 2000. A lot of the people who supported our anti-gay laws are still in our government. We haven't voted them all out. William Hague's name pops up frequently. William Hague is currently our foreign secretary, dealing with diplomacy to countries including Russia (and, for that matter, Qatar).

You say that we can't change Russia's anti-gay laws? Perhaps we need to change our own government before we have the power to change theirs.


Recommended reading for this week (apart from this blog post, obviously) is AARGH, if you can get your hands on a copy. Thank you for your time, class, and I'll see you next week.