Over the last few months, while well-intentioned people around the Western world were protesting antigay actions by Russia, conditions for gay people in much of Africa were going from terrible to even worse. Last month, the president of Nigeria signed a law prescribing 14 years behind bars for individuals in same-sex marriages and up to ten years for members of gay organizations, and since then dozens of people have been arrested and gay-rights activists have gone into hiding. In the northern (which is to say Muslim) city of Bauchi, a gay man was whipped 20 times in a courtroom – a disappointment to the crowd outside, which wanted him to be stoned to death in accordance with sharia law.
Meanwhile, gays in Uganda are waiting to see if their president signs a bill that would imprison gays for life and punish gay-rights supporters with up to seven years in jail. Ivory Coast, which by African standards is relatively moderate on these issues, was nonetheless the site of antigay rallies in late January that culminated in a violent mob raid on a gay-rights group's headquarters. On January 19, in an apparent effort to stem what seems to be a growing tide of antigay hysteria across the continent, famous Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet – making him, according to reports, the first high-profile black African ever to publicly identify as gay.
Scary stuff. Yet how many gay Americans, activist or otherwise, have gotten worked up about the human-rights situation for gay people in most of Africa? How many even know about it? Damn few. Instead, in recent months, the focus has been on Russia, with more than a few prominent Western gays worrying aloud that the Sochi Olympics would end up being the same kind of PR coup for the gay-hating Putin – in whose country it's now effectively illegal for gay-rights activists to organize or speak out publicly – that the 1936 Berlin Olympics were for the the Jew-hating Hitler. Putin, wrote actor Stephen Fry last August in an ardent open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.” Consequently, “an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential....At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.” Countless other Western luminaries concurred.
Now, I'm not suggesting that Putin's antigay campaign, which has led to arrests, beatings, and murders, isn't utterly despicable and deserving of the severest censure – it most surely is. But witnessing the massive, months-long display of Western fury over the treatment of gays in Russia, one couldn't help noticing the contrast between this explosion of righteous anger and the almost total silence in the West about gays in Uganda, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone (where they're subject to life imprisonment) and Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria (where they face the death penalty).
Fry, to his credit, is actually one of the few prominent gays in the West who has paid attention to gays in Africa: last October, on a BBC program about the persecution of gays worldwide, Fry talked to a Ugandan girl who'd been raped at age 14 to “cure” her of lesbianism. But Fry is the exception that proves the rule. Why do almost all other Western gay-rights activists all but ignore the savagely antigay policies of Africa's despotic regimes? At least part of the explanation seems clear. The despots are black – and, in many cases, Muslim as well – and the activists in question are almost invariably good little multiculturalists who know the rules: first, the white-skinned man must never, ever presume to give moral lectures to the dark-skinned man; second, Islam is above criticism.
And so we had the anti-Putin protests. Which were admissible under the guidelines of political correctness, because Russia is part of the West – sort of, anyway. And which, as I say, were a thoroughly legitimate response to a very real human-rights outrage. But now that the Winter Olympics are underway, there's another question to be asked: namely, where have all those protesters gone? Where are the rallies? Where are the rainbow banners? Where are the defiant declarations from the winners' podium, now that it really matters?
“Leading up to the Olympics in Sochi,” recalled NPR on Monday, “a dominant storyline was Russia's anti-gay propaganda law and what it might mean for athletes and other visitors. Would athletes protest in any way? Would Russian LGBT activists try to demonstrate against the propaganda law at the Olympics? The answers (so far, at least) are: barely, and not really.” A gay Olympics veteran told NPR that for a competitor to think about making any kind of protest at the end of his or her event “distracts you from your focus, and they don't need to do that.” So much for what, a few short weeks ago, was being presented as the great human-rights crusade of our time.
The story was the same in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Gay athletes in Sochi have so far been content to let their results do the talking – which suits the Australian Olympic Committee fine,” it reported on Monday. “By all means speak out,” said an AOC official, “but we don't want any protests on the medal podium or on the field of play because that will disrupt the Games.” Gay athletes, he insisted, should “put gay rights at the back of their mind” and not let “gay rights get in the way of the job they have to do.” Gay Olympians agreed. “I don't think it's a good idea to make protests here,” said an Austrian ski-jumper. “I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future and we should give them time.” Didn't Martin Luther King, Jr., say something like that?
If the SMH seemed to think that the Austrian ski-jumper had the right attitude, so, interestingly enough, did the Guardian, which observed on Sunday that the start of the games had marked a turn in “the tide of public opinion” (not just on the gay-rights front but on the lousy-security front, the disastrous-hotel-room front, and so on), resulting in “something of a backlash against the backlash.” The Guardian, apparently, was more than okay with that. While noting that gay-rights activists had been detained by cops in Red Square during the opening ceremonies, the British left's flagship daily seemed to make a point of mentioning this incident in passing and of treating it dismissively – as if it were a minor bit of unpleasantness that certainly shouldn't be allowed to spoil anybody's fun. The Guardian's report concluded with this bemusing statement: “These Olympics may not be rainbow-coloured, but they are not all black and white either.” Huh? Meaning what? That the fearless, speaking-truth-to-power Guardian has suddenly decided it's not a good idea, after all, to let an overweening concern about human rights blunt one's ability to get excited about curling and luge?
Exactly what's going on here? In the last few days, reading these and other peculiarly docile pieces in various left-leaning Western media – media which, until recently, could be fairly described as having been on the warpath over Putin's assault on gays – one wondered whether some of that good old-fashioned Soviet-era Western-progressive “understanding” of Kremlin brutality had, all these years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, finally kicked back into gear. No, Russia is no longer officially Communist – but under Putin it's close enough, perhaps, to set off the old acceptance, among leftist journalists and gay-left activists alike, of the need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. As for the American gay activists, at least one explanation for their apparent withdrawal from the Russia issue suggested itself: they needed to get back to the important work of harassing bakers who won't make gay wedding cakes and photographers who won't take pictures of gay weddings. With such solemn responsibilities, who has the time to stay focused on Putin's crackdown on freedom – let alone care about gays in Africa who are being terrorized by cops and pummeled to pieces by sharia-crazed mobs?
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