This article was originally published in the Oxford Student newspaper.
It seems that every social networking site has caught the bug. With people eager to confront the discrimination of Putin’s homophobic laws, the Sochi Games have provided an opportunity for us to repeatedly share ‘pro-LGBT’ videos. Described by journalists as ‘awesome,’ ‘perfect,’ and ‘simply the best,’ it seems that such advertisements represent the vanguard of LGBTQ rights. Yet underlying this is something altogether more worrying; whilst these videos may claim support for equality, they act to reinforce the stereotypes that propagate a more latent homophobia that remains endemic in society.
Consider the recent advert from the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion. The video, which has been viewed over four million times, shows two male lugers thrusting as they prepare to start their course, while a camp 80s anthem plays in the background. Is this really our best offering in support of gay rights? Two men in spandex thrusting to the Human League’s ‘Don’t you want me?’ A video supposedly designed to support LGBTQ equality is just reinforcing the same tired stereotypes of camp, sex-obsessed men, resorting to caricaturing homosexuals instead of representing them.
The LGBTQ community is already heavily defined by its sexual intercourse; the term ‘gay’ unfairly brings to mind connotations of lust and sex long before love and romance. A scene of two men thrusting against each other seems a poor choice to challenge these prejudices. Canada’s advert only reinforces the idea that homosexual relationships are inextricably linked to sex in a way that heterosexual relationships aren’t.
Perhaps more damaging is the closing statement of the video; ‘The games have always been a little gay’. This verges on ridiculousness – how can a sport, or any activity which doesn’t involve love or sexual intercourse, be gay? A truly liberal campaign would realise that to tie a sexual orientation to an activity is restrictive, discriminatory and entirely nonsensical.
Worse still, the idea of activities being ‘gay’ lends itself to further discrimination. It’s not surprising that one US luger took offense from having his sport described as ‘gay’ when considering that the term is so often used as a playground insult. The solution to homophobia isn’t to defend activities by defining them as ‘gay’, it’s to have the sense to realise that all activities can be enjoyed by people of any sexual orientation.
Such prejudice might explain the media’s hypocrisy in their stance towards gay rights. Whilst almost universally condemning the Sochi Games (Google, Channel 4 and the New Statesman all altered their logos to show support of gay rights), the media’s response to the announcement of the location of the 2022 World Cup was far more muted.
The footballing event is due to take place in Qatar, where laws are even more discriminatory; homosexual activity is met with lashings, imprisonment and even the death sentence. But of course, society doesn’t view football as ‘gay,’ and FIFA president Sepp Blatter was able to get away with proposing that gay spectators should ‘refrain from any sexual activity’ as a viable solution to the problem. The claim that the Winter Olympics are a ‘little gay’ may make for a funny commercial, but it propagates damaging attitudes towards sexual orientation that will contribute to homophobia elsewhere.
Of course, there have been other adverts protesting against Russia’s homophobic laws. One Norwegian sports retailer released a video culminating in a woman greeting her female partner, accompanied with the inclusive message ‘Whatever team you play for’. The sentiment is great, but the video again relies on tired stereotypes; both the women are attractive and emphasis is placed on their appearance. This focus is typical in advertising, yet the video also goes further; depicting the women’s embrace as based more on amorousness than love. In fact, the entire advert feels more like a straight man’s fantasy than an endorsement of LGBTQ rights.
Similarly, Channel 4’s advert doesn’t provide any respite from worn stereotypes and caricatures. The video consists of a fat, topless, camp man dancing under a shower of glitter, whilst singing the repeated refrain ‘Gay Mountain’. The video’s intention is clear – to provide a humorous stance on the controversy of Putin’s homophobic legislation. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on these video campaigns- after all, any support for the LGBTQ community helps to combat the discrimination that it faces. But can such stereotyping really be described as support? Moreover, is it appropriate to be creating comedy (for an overwhelmingly straight audience) based on grave abuses of human rights? There is nothing funny about people being beaten because of their sexual orientation, or arrested for attending a Gay Pride event.
To me, these videos just represent another form of ridicule, by employing LGBTQ stereotypes to satisfy the humour of a predominately straight audience. They don’t challenge any widely held beliefs in the West, but rely on the same tired perceptions of the LGBTQ community and what it means to be gay. Of course these campaigns have noble intentions, but they leave the impression of capitalising on popular support for LGBTQ rights rather than challenging discriminatory views.
These videos might be funny for the straight community to laugh at. But for everybody else, such campaigning sends out a dangerous message; it tells the LGBTQ community that they aren’t equal, but are characters to be marvelled and laughed at. It suggests not that being gay is normal, but that it is a spectacle. And a spectacle for the heterosexual community to indulge in watching.
We cannot leave the defence of rights in the hands of those who only act to propagate damaging stereotypes. After all, LGBTQ equality isn’t a sporting issue for the Olympics, it’s a fundamental human rights issue for societies everywhere.