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Boycotting the Olympics Won't Stop Russian Homophobia

Today, Russian pole vaulter and future mayor of the Sochi Olympic village Yelena Isinbayeva snagged a third world championship in Moscow. Afterwards, in an interview, she lashed out at two Swedish competitors who had painted their nails in rainbow colors in solidarity with the gay rights movement. 

"We consider ourselves like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys ... it comes from the history," Isinbayeva said, speaking in English. "[The protests are] disrespectful to our country. It's disrespectful to our citizens, because we are Russians...Maybe we are different than European people and people from different lands. We have our law which everyone has to respect. When we go to different countries, we try to follow their rules. We are not trying to set our rules over there. We are just trying to be respectful."

(READ: Eight Horrific and Uplifitng Sotries About Being Gay in the New Russia)

A week after President Barack Obama ruled out a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, talk about it continues, as does the loud—and merited—outrage from Western gay activists. But I'd argue that a boycott—of the Olympics, of Stoli—is useless, and, really, so is the outrage. It won't stop the violence and discrimination against LGBT people in Russia; in fact, it may even be counterproductive. 

Russia, as political analyst Masha Lipman pointed out in The New Yorker, is not a very socially conservative country:

The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as porce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different. Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of both porce and abortion, and some of the most liberal laws on the latter. Russia’s birth rate is not dissimilar from that of secular cultures of western Europe. Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common; in one survey, a mere fourteen per cent of respondents said they believed a single parent can’t raise a child properly. And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries. 

And yet, when it comes to homosexuality, Russians are, strangely, very retrograde. A recent poll showed that 34 percent of Russians think homosexuality is "a disease that must be treated"; 23 percent think it is "the result of a bad upbringing, loose morality, bad habit"; 17 percent think it is the result of "seduction." (Another poll showed that 22 percent of Russians, if one of their loved ones came out to them, would seek treatment for them.) Only 16 percent see it as a natural phenomenon, present at birth, "which has the same right to exist as heterosexuality." That is, 74 percent of Russians think homosexuality is, in one way or another, an aberration. 

Where does this homophobia come from? Well, homophobia is generally common pretty much everywhere. In the U.S., for example, the attitudes that Russians confess to were widespread until relatively recently, and, in some corners of real America, still are. To wit: In 1969, Time ran a cover story called "The Homosexual in America," which dealt with what was then considered a massive oddity. It was not until 1973 that psychiatrists in America reclassified homosexuality in the DSM, where it had, until then, been classified as a mental illness. We just got rid of DOMA this summer.

In Russia, this same misunderstanding of homosexuality is also tied up with the fear of prison culture, which tens of millions of Soviets encountered, passing through its jails and gulags in waves of purges and repressions. Homosexuality was something humiliating, it was the non-consensual rape that inexperienced and weak inmates incurred at the hands of the strong. 

Today, all that has now been spackled with a fine patina of anti-Westernism. Putin, in search of a modern Russian identity, has seized on a hyper-conservative, traditional vision of Russia. He has been encouraging a growing role for the Russian Orthodox Church in society, an institution that once advocated a dress code for all Russian women and generally takes a pretty medieval view of things. "Today the anti-gay propaganda is a part of the general shift toward social conservatism and it is also a way to associate the excessively modernized Russians"—that is, the ones in the cities who have bucked Putin's authority—"with 'undermining our traditional values,'" Lipman told me.

There has also been a huge anti-American push in the last year and a half, in Putin's rhetoric, on the television. Polls show anti-American attitudes have spiked, and that the U.S. has once again become public enemy #1. This, says Lipman, ties into the traditionalist push, "which is to say: if Americans are criticizing us, this is because they are arrogant, want to impose their ways on everyone, and—in the case of homosexuality—want to 'infect' us with this horrible thing."

The Russian patriarch, for example, has said that the anti-gay laws are a direct response to the normalization of homosexuality abroad. "Recently, we have been encountering massive temptations, when, in a whole host of countries, sin is ratified by law, and those who act according to their conscience and fight these laws imposed by the minority are repressed," he said. This, he added, was "a symptom of the Apocalypse." A regional television host in Siberia has said that all of this amounted to a Western plan to humiliate Russia by ruining the Olympics. "First, they said that the Olympic objects are being built on Circassian cemeteries, even though they didn't know who the Circassians were. Now, they've invented this situation with sexual minorities," he said, using a common euphemism for the LGBT community, calling all of it "a real information war." A recent YouTube clip made the rounds on the Russian-language internet; it was of a popular television host saying that gays should be banned from blood and organ donation, and that, if they die in a car accident, their hearts should be buried in the ground or burned. It enraged the Moscow intelligentsia, but if you read the comments, many support this view, and see the host as standing up to nefarious Western influence. 

This kind of wide, deep social acceptance of an idea cannot be changed from the outside; societies just don't work like that. "Boycotting the Olympics will do several things, none of which includes improving the lives and human rights of gays in Russia," says Alexander Kliment, a Russia analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Putin, and most of Russia, relish this kind of reproach from Europe or the U.S., because they view it as confirmation of Russian ethical and spiritual fortitude in the face of decadent Western naggers. So the frame of reference is entirely different. This is not a human rights issue for Russia; this is a religious and cultural issue for Russia, just the way gay rights and gay marriage are cultural and religious issues for the right in the U.S." 

As disgusting as these views are, as deplorable as the anti-gays laws are, our yelling and screaming about them will not change Russian attitudes, just as Europe or Canada screaming at America to legalize gay marriage or to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or to remove homosexuality from the DSM is not what got America to do any of those things. (None of which, let's face it, happened all that long ago.) The most Westerners can do is have their athletes go and win at the Olympics and show that their being gay is not a mark of shame or abnormality. (Which, let's be honest, they can't all do in their home countries, either.)  

Ultimately, these are things that societies have to figure out for themselves. And as much as these laws and images of Russian gays being beaten and killed for their sexual orientation upset us, we have to recognize, while not turning a blind eye, that there is a limit to how much change we can force in someone else's home.