Out at the Winter Olympics
Western media is falling over itself to celebrate queer visibility at the Winter Olympics. If you’re desperate to accrue credibility as a progressive then the very least you could do is explain why it actually means something.
Sometimes it’s life-affirming to see something queer that is not explicitly about the fact that it’s queer. When something is allowed to occur organically without the highlighted self-awareness of its wider political impact or resonance as a queer moment, it is allowed to simply be. Athletes like Gus Kenworthy can be part of a couple supporting one another and Irene Wüst is simply a woman with the freedom to tell the truth about herself; LGBT athletes play a part in the simple beauty of an unscrutinised mundanity.
On a global scale it affects the way we internalise perceptions of the LGBT community, subtly reaffirming the validity of our existence whilst simultaneously empowering and comforting those who identify with the experience of the visible role model. In the long run, these presentations can serve to deconstruct prejudice, start meaningful conversations and detoxify queer shame on both an internal and cultural level. As such, a part of me really wants to let the grand stages of all widely televised activities from the Olympics to the Oscars exist in the vacuums of their intended purpose.
Yet, as I ascend the rainbow stairway to mount my big gay soapbox, the fantasy of anything existing in a socio-political vacuum dissolves quicker than student politics confronted with organisation. We live in a world where discriminatory “religious freedom” and conversion therapy laws are still contentious issues, where the religious right has gained more traction with younger generations in years and where the LGBT+ community remains affected by bafflingly disproportionate homelessness and suicide statistics. These are just some of the issues prevalent in supposedly-tolerant Western states. Arguably these issues don’t have a place at this event, just as long as we ignore the political climate of the host country. In 2017, South Korea endured the impeachment of its own president and brutally re-enforced oppression of labour unions. The government has only just started to make small concessions to accommodate its LGBT citizens by finally permitting tax-exempt charitable status for the nation’s first official LGBT rights organisation. This group currently fights for the legal recognition of same-sex families, acquiring basic discrimination protections, prominent outing campaigns that have been spearheaded by the country’s own military and mounting pressure in conjunction with a cross-generational social movement to overturn draconian press freedom laws. This is the time for tensions within the global political zeitgeist to come into the spotlight.
It would be remiss at this point not to acknowledge that there has been some degree to which LGBT athletes have utilised their platform in a meaningful way, most notably with regards to Adam Ripon and his recent put-downs against Mike Pence. Yet if we compare the extent of activism, which here amounts to a couple of eloquently undermining comments, to the mobilised and vocal response to the 2014 Sochi Games, it is completely inadequate in its attempts to actualise political change. In 2014, funds were acquired for human rights groups via marches and campaigns, with activists subsequently starting an international conversation. Although Russia’s specific crackdown on LGBT rights, which included state-sponsored oppression and police collusion in permitting vigilante groups to commit hate crimes, called for more immediate action and recognition, the comparison is illustrative of how selective our priorities can be despite the genuine continuation of the problems our society supposedly stands against. A side effect of the activism surrounding Sochi would be in its lack of effect on legislative change within Russia, with athlete Irene Wüst stating that her and fellow athletes “can’t do anything about it”. However, ultimately no matter how hopeless or small-scale one’s own actions may appear they can still be of use but only if directed in a practical way.
Which brings me back to the part of me that wants a “queer moment” to be merely portrayed as innocuous rather than vapidly pandering to the fact that the individuals featured are queer. The entitlement to mundanity remains a luxury or a novelty for the LGBT community, yet this desire for a softened depiction of queerness in the public eye can also play a role in depoliticising the community towards a sense of contentment, as epitomised by the evolution of pride parades from protests to parties. This need for simplicity and normalcy can have a lulling opiate effect, something prevalent in the optimism we derive from role models, where one man can mean social mobility is a universal possibility or the freedom of a pop-star to twerk and shoot fireworks out of her nipples can mean women’s bodies are definitively liberated. Assimilated indifference and active celebration seem like opposite approaches but they can share some of the same negative effects, especially in light of the fact that both concepts are unfathomable in many parts of the world. It’s strange then that the effect of today’s media coverage, that uses our identities in one-dimensional self-congratulatory displays of progressiveness, becomes actively less empowering than just letting events appear unremarkable.
I am not critical of the athletes or for the impact of their visibility, for I’m sure it will have many feeling gratefully reassured or empowered. I am critical of the culture that necessitates this to be news and the angle of its focus. Yet if it is to occur, then let it at least be sincerely for our benefit!
It is time to move away from the symbolic and sensational and instead towards seeking a more practical impact, or at least use the symbolic to advance the practical.
This can only happen when we sustain focus on the issues that the LGBT community face that in-turn makes the visibility of these athletes remarkable in the first place.
(Image courtesy of Advocate.com)