The Russian government has intensified its assault on gay and trans Russians as the world looks on in horror. Meanwhile, gays and their allies in the United States are feeling helpless even as the media is awash with ideas for helping end the violence against our gay and trans brothers and sisters in Russia. From Dan Savage’s idea to boycott Russian vodka-maker Stolichnaya, to nascent calls for a boycott of the summer Olympic games, these well-meaning ideas are also unfortunately misinformed.
The first is a feel-good symbolic act that won’t have much effect, and could possibly do more harm than good. Some five percent of the U.S. population is gay, half of those people drink vodka, and even fewer drink Stoli brand. For the boycott to have any real effect it has to be picked up by straight allies as well. However, as I argue in a bit, straight allies could do something more useful for their gay and trans siblings.
And regarding a boycott of the Olympic games, well, the only thing bringing attention to Russia’s cruel policies is the Games. Not holding the Olympics in Sochi could further alienate Russian gays from their sympathetic sisters and brothers throughout the world. And at any rate, a boycott is opposed by gay athletes and would likely be ineffective at changing Russian policies. It won’t endear athletes or their supporters to gay and transgender issues either.
An alternative: Gay-for-a-day pledges. Instead of boycotting the Olympics, tourists and athletes could instead sign pledges that declare that they are gay for the duration of their visit in Russia. And lest this come across as American meddling, this could work just as well in rural America where gays are disproportionately discriminated against. Does your workplace discriminate against gays? Encourage everyone to be gay-for-a-day and see how quickly that discriminatory policy starts to affect the bottom line.
Imagine if every single international visitor to Russia during the Olympics were gay. This sort of strategy–unlike the other two most popular ideas that are divisive and ill-placed–expresses solidarity and coherence. Imagine the comfort Russian gays might experience knowing that instead of turning our back on them and their Olympics and their vodka that we are instead coming to help you.
The idea isn’t entirely unproblematic. For example, being gay isn’t something you choose. But, on the other hand, it isn’t necessarily readily apparent either, like skin color or other markers of difference. Does being gay-for-a-day overlook the difficulties associated with being gay every single day? Perhaps. But those straight allies would certainly be putting themselves in harm’s way by temporarily claiming a gay identity.
Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t have the immediate benefit of helping gays across the world to feel like they are doing anything. But that is the nature of direct action. If we are going to be successful at changing dangerous policies, we’re going to need to maintain this level of psychological discomfort. Discomfort is a catalyst for change.
Although not drinking Stoli and signing petitions to boycott the Olympics might make gays and their allies feel better, that sort of indirect action likely won’t be very effective. This isn’t about feeling better; it’s about producing real change. For that, we need direct action. Encouraging straight and gay visitors in Russia to flaunt their presumed homosexuality could be a good method for doing that.