Oppressed minorities

Oppressed minorities
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The following short editorial appeared on Medium’s The Nib the other day. For those of you who aren’t friends of Filibuster on Facebook (which you should be!), Medium is now the place to be if you want to see my cartoons the moment they’re finished. Accompanying written content will continue to be exclusive to this site, however.

Except this time. I feel I’ve written enough about the subject of gay rights in Russia at this point. Be sure to check out my August Filibuster essay on Mr. Putin’s many non-LGBT related human rights abuses, as well as a recent article I wrote for the Huffington Post entitled “Russia’s ‘Anti-Gay’ Laws Aren’t Most Worthy of Your Protest.” If you’re so inclined, you may also enjoy watching me gab on this week’s Matt Bors banter vlogcast where I also discuss this issue (among many others).

Western progressives occasionally enjoy caring about the plight of foreigners, but only so long as their problems seem vaguely familiar and relatable. Their troubles can’t be too dark or terrible — say, getting hunted down, arrested, lashed, and sent to prison by your government for being gay, which is what happens to homosexuals in Nigeria — because that’s a horror far too exotic for your typical European or American to readily empathize with. Much better for the victims to only be one degree worse off than ourselves — like the gays in Russia, who live in a society in which homosexuality is legal and tolerated, but the state makes organizing the pride parade harder than is probably justifiable.

Being gay myself, I’ve long found the current slacktivist campaign framing Russia as the world’s worst outlier of homophobia tiresome and sheltered. It minimizes the vastly worse suffering of LGBT communities in far more repressive states that don’t happen to have the Olympics (such as basically all of Africa) and ignores the many far more substantial human rights abuses of the Putin regime, both at home and abroad (like openly arming the bloody Syrian dictatorship).

Could life for Russian gays stand to be better? Homophobic opinions are certainly rampant, but it’s important to remember we’re also talking about a modern, urban country containing what Lonely Planet describes as “active gay and lesbian scene,” complete with vibrant gay bars, clubs, newspapers, and lobby groups. As a fine story in the New Republic noted, in the eyes of many LGBT Russians, “The Only People Harassing the Gays of Sochi are the Foreign Journalists.”

It’s similarly worth remembering that much of the western backlash against Russia was spawned by the passage of a vague, mostly symbolic law against spreading “gay propaganda” to children that has been used to fine all of four people since it was passed last summer, and may never wind up being fully enforced.

In Uganda, by contrast, their government recently passed a bill making homosexuality a criminal offence punishable by life in prison.

A little perspective might be nice.


  1. Colin Minich

    I think part of the reason why the West in particular lobs more criticism and extends more sympathy towards LGBT populations in nations like Russia is because many of them also think that through mass movement they can actually influence the nation/government more than they could elsewhere. When they see Nigeria or Uganda, provided race isn't a factor and they want to go Blood Diamond on us with "TIA This is Africa", they see a nation they can't touch and whose efforts they'd see as futile. It's why many Western feminists of the social networking generation literally create issues out of non-issues (like the sign "Men at work" or the word "penmanship) because Lord knows the Taliban is going to laugh at them when they try to speak out against the atrocities in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    I don't think many of us don't believe that it's worse in Africa. I think the focus, as you said, is greater on Russia because we see Russia as more related to us and that many activists think they have a better chance of fomenting change and tolerance than again in Africa or Asia.

  2. George

    Critical counter point: does anybody honestly think the Russians will care what westerners think? If anything, western opposition, in my opinion, is likely to piss the Russian public off and merely embolden them into becoming more homophobic.

    While I have nothing to justify this, I think Americans and Europeans divide the world into three parts:

    1) Their country and, depending on how large/small their nation is, their immediately surrounding neighbors
    2) All European nations and nations culturally descended from European nations
    3) Everyone else

    I'm of the opinion that westerners just don't care about anything that happens in Nigeria, Cameroon, Yemen, Cambodia, etc. for the simple reason that it's just too foreign for them to deal with. Almost all of Africa and Asia fall into that category. Ironically a lot of those nations were ruled by Europeans at some point, but nonetheless they are not culturally European.

    I don't think it has anything to do with the level of repression. Heck, if Russia and Uganda flipped places with respect to severity of homosexual repression (i.e. Russia was jailing gays for life while Uganda was simply fining people), westerners would *still* be focused on Russia. It's just a whole lot less foreign as a European nation.

  3. Colin Minich

    To be honest, that's sort of what I was conveying. The fact that Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan, etc., are more foreign and a lot harder to relate to and/or affect is what makes many Westerners shift their attention to places like Russia or Belarus. They don't even bother with Asia and China does a phenomenal job sweeping things under the rug or pushing people out.

    They see Uganda and immediately many simply think "savages." It's awful, I'll admit, but I personally think there's truth in it. The same applies to Iran's theocracy hanging homosexuals or Pakistanis shooting girls in the face for daring to learn. Many Western activists are either too afraid to go after them or just shrug their shoulders and think "Meh, savages."

    About emboldening the Russian populace, that's a coin toss. Putin, despite doing as he pleases, is still somewhat image conscious the way China is.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    Also there is the coup out argument: "It's their culture." Russia is considered European or white. Thus the left/media just lumps them all together with the rest of the West and paints Russia is being the outlier.

    But I think there is a wider argument here. Is this the right strategy? It just might be. Racism and xenophobia aside. Scientifically speaking, civilizations starts off with warrior tribes to city states then nations and eventually a global community. So this inclusion of Russia, global process?

    Before it was just Western Europe and the Anglo-American colonies like Canada, US and AU. Then it became those plus Eastern Europe and some island nations. Now it's including Russia and even some Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. Will the term "West" continue to expand to former colonies? Once countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast make enough progress will they be "lumped" in the term West? Well it then be unacceptable to be homophobic or sexist in those countries?

    We have seen it happen with the world boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. That was a well timed move by the global (Western?) community. Doing it to countries like Zimbabwe or Uganda will have no affect except hurt the locals, they gov't won't budge. The free market opens up economics to growth but it also opens up countries to new ideas. Once you are part of the global economic community its hard to go back, which leads to the same effort in social policies. Russia has hit a point of no return, this is what we are seeing. The Ugandas of the world are a way off that.

  5. Devil Child

    The Eastern Europeans and Russians have very distinct identities from the traditional "West," I can't imagine anyone but the incredibly ignorant lumping those regions of the world together. Even by the "they're all white people" standard. If you're just lumping all white people together, why exclude the Turks, Arabs, Persians, North Africans, and Afghani?

  6. Jake_Ackers

    Media. Russia has the Olympics, has people protesting and the sort. It's all in public eye. Africa, well, like Colin said. TIA, This is Africa. Gays being oppressed in Africa is no more different that any other group.

    Let me put it this way. Gays stand out as a discriminated group in Russia. Gays are just one of many in Africa. The nail that stands out gets hit first.

  7. Rachael

    There's also the Olympics going on right now. Should you be watching, or should you be boycotting? Should we even be participating? Well, bit late for that now, but still. What's it say about the Olympics and IOC that they're taking place in Russia?

  8. Monte

    I think that is indeed the reasoning. Its not that the west ignores the bigger horrors because they are too big, but more because they have more trouble identifying with the country itself and that the country has so many problems that it seems far too hard to fix. With Russia, the government and society are structured in such a way that it feels like change is indeed possible with enough pressure… These are countries where the will of the people does have some sway over their government and the people are smart enough that you can make them see reason. You get enough russians to care about how things are in their country and they can move to change it.

    With many other nations however; the problems run deeper. In some counties, the scoeity has a whole is so ignorant that it seems impossible to get them on your side; complaints about their actions will just fall on deaf ears since the vast majority does not care. In other countries, the government is not swayed by the will of the people, and thus no amount of pressure will ever get them to change; the people themselves would need to get more power before anything could be done. And then there are countries that do have governments that would like to change things, but the country has an uncontrollable criminal element that doesn't want things to change and will fight such movement; the government in those cases is too weak and corrupt.

    In a sense, with Russia we a see a problem that's actual something we can fix… Where as with Nigeria; we would not even know where to begin. I mean, the only tool critics of various countries have is their voice. If our voice can't be heard then what good can be done. Its like the whole world knows there's a problem there, but we can't see anything that can be done about it. The ability to change countries from the outside is very limitted; change has to come from within and many of these countries are just not built to easily allow such changes

    I'd also say, in a way, we hold Russia to a higher standard. The country has a very influential position in the world and thus the west expects it to act like a good example for the smaller nations to follow. If russia is not homophobic and speaks out against such discrimination, then its smaller allies will be inclined to listen

  9. Monte

    I'd say another factor would be how our media doesn't pay much attention to third world countries at all. The media never seems to report anything that goes on in those countries and thus the people turn a blind eye to it. The media is only interested in reporting on what they think their listeners are interested in… thus most of the news either being about western countries or the middle east, with occasional stories on other parts of the world assuming if what's going on in those countries somehow relates to us. And while the oppression of minorities is one of those things the west tends to get up in arms about, everything else in the country is not so much high on our concerns… so the media downplays it in favor of news from a more "interesting" part of the world.

    Contrast with say North Korea… North Korea is guilty of horrendous crimes just like those African countries, but we actually pay attention to the NK. Why? because their primary target, South Korea, is an ally, and North Korea is constantly making threats against the west. Because of that, what goes on in NK feels more like a western concern, and something the media's listeners would be interested in… and so the media reports it; and because the media reports it, more people know about what's going on and show concern for it… Alot of those africian countries however, tend to keep to themselves and don't seem to have much influence on the world, so the media and others don't pay too much attention to what goes on… hence the horrors there fall on deaf ears

    Kinda of an issue with society as a whole that we don't pay much attention to the smaller countries in the world, Just because we do not feel connected to them

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Congrats JJ on all your success. I remember when you stopped making cartoons. I lost one of my favorite websites. But then you restarted and I was glad. Congrats on all the success.

  11. Guest

    You ask for "a little perspective". Don't forget, though, that campaigning is not journalism. Campaigning is about achieving change, not some sort of balance or enlightened viewpoint. The question is therefore not academic – 'where is the problem worst' – but practical – 'where and how can we do good'.

    Some feel that, right now, that is Russia and by making noise about the Olympics. Personally, I'm not very convinced but I'm often wrong.

    There is a genuine and difficult question about how westerners – especially Europeans – can best support gay rights in Africa given the history of, essentially, Europeans telling Africans what to do. For this reason such communication must be careful and measured to avoid provoking the wrong sort of reactions. There is a lot of slow and painstaking work to support survivors of persecution, build up networks, etc. which needs to take place to ensure that allies are not speaking over the heads of the LGBT community on the ground, but with them, before more overt political pressure is effective.

    There's a strand of journalism – to my mind an unpleasant one – which shrugs off unacceptable behaviour by pointing to something worse, until finally pointing to a problem that is so big that it can be shrugged off as unsolvable. So doing it justifies inaction and apathy, and doesn't get us anywhere. But then, journalism isn't necessarily about achieving change.

    Let's each make use of what opportunities we have.

  12. ShadowFox

    It's much easier for them to criticize Russia because Russia can't use the MMWPSU (Magic Make White People Shut Up) phrase "You're a racist!"

  13. truteal

    I would've used "Middle Eastern Gays" instead of "African Gays"

  14. Simon

    Wasn't Uganda a big deal not so long ago? I remember it being all over the news.

  15. Travis

    Look at the Russian guy in this cartoon.

    Look at this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMTbFSJ_Tr4

    Look back at the guy in the cartoon.

    Look at the smug profile picture of the author, scribbling away from the safety of gay-friendly Canada, about how easy Russian queers have it.

  16. Travis

    J.J., you are an apologist for institutionalized homophobia. "the gays in Russia, who live in a society in which homosexuality is legal and tolerated, but the state makes organizing the pride parade harder than is probably justifiable," the idea that queers are tolerated in Russian society is laughable, but the most appalling part of this is the way you belittle the people trapped in such a horrible situation, boiling it all down to 'oh it's slightly harder to organize a party.'

    There's one of those silly pride parades. It is indeed somewhat tougher to organize a pride parade when you might have your face beaten in. One can only assume the police in the background are laughing at the very idea that gay-friendly Russia might not be such a nice place. I mean, you read that it was a great spot for gays in a travel guide, right?

    You are a defender of hate laws. You think a site to help queer teens being fined is proof that a law actually isn't that bad. How often do you speak about the plight of Ugandan queers when you're not using it as a cudgel to silence others? Do you do a lot of writing and speaking and TV interviews about it? I don't imagine so, but I could be wrong.

    If you had the misfortune to live in a society where queer people were marginalized, targeted by politicians, and at physical risk, you'd want to change the situation. Even if it was worse somewhere else! But since you live in one of the safest countries in the world for queers, you can smugly sit back and decide who can care about what – oops, sorry, you can't care about Russian queers because you don't care about Ugandan queers, and you can't care about both because one's worse!

    You really like to bag on slacktivists, who are basically people whose political support never rises above seeing something on facebook and saying "yeah, that's bad, I don't like that." Are those people particularly helpful? Not really. But they're not HARMFUL. You're far worse. You see things that are bad and say "no, that's actually not that bad." And you don't just say it on facebook or twitter. You go to bat defending legal and cultural homophobia on major news sites and in your cartoons. You minimize the situation of people who have it far worse than you ever will. You work long and hard to try and shame people for supporting legal equality and physical safety for queer people.

    I'm not even angry at you. I WISH I was angry at you. But it's just confusing and sad that another queer person has so little sympathy for the oppressed, so much disdain for their allies (however lackadaisical), so many excuses for their persecutors, and so little self-awareness. As I said, I could be wrong about your level of activism (or slacktivism?) with reference to Ugandan gays. I hope I am! But I think I'm not. When your only contribution to the discussion of queer rights is your disdain for those that wish to see progress, your contribution is to make the world, in your own small way, worse for your fellow queers.

  17. Adam


  18. Greg

    "LGBT-rights" movement is about using homosexuality as a psycological weapon or tool to destroy european white people thier family, love and interpersonal relations. Therefore no need for "LGBT-rights" in Africa or middle east. Those who sponsor "LGBT-rights"-movement with money could not care less if homos live or die as long as they can act as usefull idiots for them.

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