“Queer quislings”: Johnny Weir, and getting Russia wrong

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: NON-GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out!

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: BAD GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out.

Fellow gays, I want to discuss a subject which, in my opinion, towers in importance above all others. It is the subject of international homophobia.

At the start, let me make clear that no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this force — a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender person has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth.

We must be sure that those who seek to lead us today are equally dedicated.  We cannot survive on half loyalties any more than we can find the facts of homophobia with half truths. 

Wise words! They’re as inspiring now as the day they were first spoken. That day was June 2, 1950, and the speaker was that famous gay campaigner Joseph McCarthy, a patriotic fighter and good-looking Irish lug equally at home under the Capitol dome and in the anal cavities of Roy Cohn. At least, so they say. I’ve changed a few words in Tailgunner Joe’s oration, just to bring it up to date for the era of Queer Nation. But the basic idea still resonates for us, as our great sexuality stands at a moral crossroads, caught between Us and Them, hope and fear, the dark burden of the past and the shining promise of the future, which just like tomorrow is always a day away. Right?

There’s no room for half-loyalties. Consider the sad Alger Hiss of the homos, Johnny Weir. Weir, an Olympic figure skater, is not just openly gay but flaming. Even so, it may be necessary to burn him at the stake. In an interview yesterday with Keith Olbermann, Weir – dressed, with typical traitorous élan, in a vintage Red Army uniform – said he doesn’t think boycotting the Olympics is the best protest of Putin’s anti-gay laws.

While many people can sit on their couch at home and say Oh, we shouldn’t go to Russia …  staying away is something I think is the worst possible thing we can do. … Even if we stay away, Russia will still put on an Olympics, they will win all of the medals and it will be even more of a propaganda machine for Russia. What we need to do is be there, to be strong and to be united. We have to show Putin who we are, what we’re about.

If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. John Aravosis promptly lit into the skater: “Johnny Weir is living proof that you can be de jure progay, and de facto antigay, at the same time.”

Weir has been somewhat – how shall I say? – unhelpful in terms of his lack of support for the international effort to help the gay and trans communities in Russia. Weir seems to be letting his Olympian side take precedence over his gay side.

Weir in costume: At least he's not carrying a Kalashnikov

Weir in costume: He may look gay to you, but  just ask him about the boycott

Two sides? People with an extra side need it amputated, fast. They can’t be trusted. Is this guy some kind of closet Communist? I’d guess the author really doesn’t like Johnny Weir personally, which is understandable, given that the kid is not only disloyal but, as Aravosis tweeted today, “a bit caricaturish.” His post is called “Nothing Good Can Come from Johnny Weir,” but if you judge from the URL — these tend to fossilize headings from early drafts — the title used to include something about a “freak of nature.”  (The URL is http://americablog.com/2013/09/freak-nature-johnny-weir.html) Oddly enough, that’s the kind of slur Johnny Weir has heard from homophobes throughout his career. ““We should make him pass a gender test!” “He should compete with the women!” a couple of Canadian sportscasters chortled on air during the 2012 Olympics. In the past, many people saw Weir as courageous for standing up against this shit. But that was before the fey little deviationist veered from the Central Committee’s line.

Then someone named Scott Wooledge stepped in — he has a business called Memeographs, which as you’d guess produces memes, those funny internet pictures that make you seem cool and original when you post them on Facebook along with 1,537,648 other individualists.  Here’s today’s viral sensation:

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Queer quisling? Really? I have a dark confession. I, too, have a Soviet military uniform. You could buy them for a few forints in Budapest when I moved there in 1989; Russian soldiers were peeling them off and selling them right and left to scrape up spending money. For years, in the former Warsaw Pact, they were prized as ironic objects whose appropriation (for costume parties, not Party Congresses) mocked the onetime occupiers. This is a lot like the kind of thing gays used to call “camp.” Johnny Weir is campy, an attitude that tends to sit poorly with political correctness.  But these days, camp is for quislings. I wonder if the language here might be getting a bit over the top. This thought control, these charges of treason seem a little … Stalinist, somehow. Maybe Soviet attire would fit Scott Wooledge even better than Johnny Weir.

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir's clothing, unmasked

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir’s clothing, unmasked

But all this is nothing as against the righteous ire of John Becker, at the Bilerico Project, who practically dismembers Weir’s comments syllable by syllable, The incompetent little ice queen can’t do anything right. Weir, for instance, had the effrontery to describe himself as “an Olympian, first and foremost, before a gay man, before a white man, I am an Olympian. That’s what I worked for from age twelve.” That is not just disloyalty, it’s thoughtcrime. Wise up, traitor skaterboy, remember who you are! Becker explains it to him:

Note to Johnny: while you’re certainly entitled to view yourself as an Olympian “before a gay man,” that’s simply not true, biologically and chronologically speaking. You may have been training for the Olympics since you were twelve — and believe me, I have incredible respect for the training you and other athletes put yourselves through — but you were born gay. Sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s humanity; being an Olympian is not. So whether or not you place your gayness ahead of your Olympic identity, you were a gay person long before you set foot on the ice for the very first time.

Not only does this little ingrate not understand his own essential, primordial, primary biological being: he disses marriage. Weir made the mistake of saying that “the Western countries that support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender unions” should unite at Sochi. Becker goes ballistic:

Ummmm, Johnny, it’s 2013, not 1983. LGBT people don’t have unions, we have marriages. … Those terms may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but they sure as hell aren’t now. If you’re going to be working the talk show circuit, you owe it to your community to update your vocabulary.

Wait a minute. 

You owe it to your community to use the M-word? I feel my own inner traitor coming out. But what if you don’t want to marry, or call your relationship a marriage — because, say, you believe along with generations of feminists that it’s a repressive institution sodden with the unpaid sweat of patriarchy, and no liberating model for your loves? Weir, as it happens, has married his Russian partner. But are we all bound to obey and imitate, in word and deed?

Here’s where I leave the party. With all due respect to Becker, I invite him to fuck the hell off, and stop telling me how to define my intimacies or live my life. I haven’t been a human rights activist for a quarter century so that some small-minded blogger could straitjacket me in a new regime of canons, conformities, and exclusions. For his information, my relationship is not a marriage, nor is it any kind of regular, sell-out union. It’s a radical Trotskyist union with militant anarchist tendencies, wild as the Wobblies or the old Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. I’m going to stick to my principles, and I’m not going to play Brad-and-Janet just because John Becker orders me to. And If John Becker doesn’t like how I think of my own life, too fucking bad.

Model for my relationships

Model for my relationships

The abuse of Weir today was weird, an explosion of macho paranoia. But the rage and vitriol, completely out of proportion to what Weir said, suggest that something’s getting way, way out of hand. The demand that gayness trump any other identity or interest because you’re BORN THAT WAY, that’s ALL YOU ARE; the contradictory search for bad gays who don’t have any right to the name; the talk of treachery, the policing of word choice as well as opinion, the smearing of some gays as “antigay” — these kinds of things don’t just demolish nuance and discussion. They destroy movements.

They breed amid the mounting fever of ever more high-pitched rhetoric that surrounds the Russia campaign. The panic gets steadily more manic. The Holocaust comparisons are becoming not just offensive but insane. Aravosis warns Weir that “Jesse Owens won and the Nazis still killed millions afterwards”! — as if Putin is already testing his gas chambers. Harvey Fierstein seriously believes the next stop after Sochi is, if not Auschwitz, at least Bergen-Belsen:

Vigilantes [in Russia] have implied instruction to protect their communities from the rampant evil.  … And now the government comes in with “concern” for the gay community’s safety. They are rounded up for their own protection and isolated for the sake of the children at risk of infection. Welcome to the return of concentration camps.

This is all in the present tense: Fierstein seems to think it’s happening now, or anyway only a day away. If you really believe that, then of course you can’t waste a second on discussion, there’s genocide going on, something must be done immediately, and dissenters are as bad as killers. Johnny Weir has blood on his blades!  This kind of hyped-up desperation debases all debate.

This wouldn't have gotten out of hand if you'd listened to me earlier: "Death to World Imperialism," Soviet poster, 1920

This wouldn’t have gotten out of hand if you’d listened to me earlier: “Death to World Imperialism,” Soviet poster, 1920

There’s something even more disturbing about the abuse. The truth is: Weir’s opinions, whatever you think of them, are shared by a significant number of Russian LGBT activists. Many activist voices there have criticized the boycotts. The Russian LGBT Network issued a statement six weeks ago that said:

Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways. …

Do not boycott the Olympics – boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!

So? Is the Russian LGBT Network “antigay”? Are they fake gays, mere gays “de jure,” as Aravosis says? Are they quislings, Scott Wooledge? Are they only concerned about their selfish interests, instead of a bunch of American boycotters’ needs? Attacking Weir is actually a way for these folks to attack Russian activists and Russian arguments by proxy. They’d be shouting insults and heaping abuse on some of the Russians they claim to defend, if they dared.

Surprise! There are divisions among Russian activists. All the attention paid in recent days to the sheer looniness of Nikolai Alekseev — whose pathology and prejudice truly put him beyond the pale — obscures the fact that serious, respected activists in Moscow and Petersburg differ, for the most part civilly, on what to do. Some people support the Stoli boycott but not the Olympics boycott, some support both, some want neither. The first obligation on Western supporters in this kind of situation is: Do no harm. Whatever you do, try not to worsen the divisions unnecessarily, try not to turn disagreements into civil wars by the sheer weight of your influence. But when Aravosis and Wooledge demonize a perfectly credible strain of opinion by abusing it viciously as “antigay,” they are really, really, really not helping the movement within Russia.

Working together, we're pretty rad: "Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!" Soviet poster, 1925

Working together, we’re pretty rad: “Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!” Soviet poster, 1925

More than that, though: There have to be strategic discussions. Western activists actually can play productive roles here. They can help create virtual spaces for talking strategy — Skype, Viber and Internet chat are wonderful inventions that, surprise again!, are useable for more than hookups. They can serve as sounding boards for their Russian colleagues, to figure out what methods will sway foreign governments as well as their own. They can learn about what’s worked in Moscow or Rostov, and, with a little humility, they can offer examples of what’s succeeded elsewhere. Doing this would require getting off  the high-horse of urgency, discarding the frantic certainty that we are summoned to do something, anything, and it has to be now. It would mean admitting that this is going to be a long fight that will stretch way beyond Sochi. It would mean trying to settle on some common and realistic long-term goals, which might not be the stuff of headlines (Putin overthrown! Anti-gay law repealed) but could be very meaningful all the same: arrests that aren’t made, trials that don’t happen, organizations that actually survive. It would mean building a movement for the long haul, too, reaching out to the backbone structures that power real, successful international campaigns — labor unions, anti-war and women’s groups, minority lobbies, mobilized students. It would mean putting the Western activist ego in abeyance a bit, admitting that you’re not going to save a bunch of Russians solo, that Russians are more likely to save themselves.

Of course, this would all be slow and boring and terribly unsexy, and much of it would be out of the public eye. Which is why the Dan Savages will probably never go for it.

How much are the U.S. campaigners bothering to listen to Russians at all — you know, the kind inside Russia, the ones who are going to be directly affected by what they do? Not much, from what I see.

Exhibit One. Dan Savage gave an interview to Radio Free Europe a week ago:

RFE/RL: Are you in communication with Russian LGBT activists about the situation on the ground?

Savage: I’m getting a very clear picture. I live in Seattle, Washington. And there isn’t a large Russian or Russian gay community here. The large Russian community and large Russian gay community is in New York City. And I’m following very closely their statements and following meetings that are going on there.

I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.

This all means “No,” with a little overlay of “I can see Russia from my house.” Savage weirdly answers a question about whether he’s ever talked to a Russian activist in Russia by saying he “follows” –whatever that means — what Russians living in New York are saying. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that these aren’t the same thing. He does let us know, however, that 23 years ago he talked to some people in Moscow. It’s a pity they still aren’t civilized. They do have Starbucks now, though.

It makes you wonder whether Savage thought Russians should have any input into the boycott campaign he started. John Aravosis began his attack on Johnny Weir today with this immortal line: “It’s time we stopped pretending that every guy who sucks d*ck, as my friend Dan Savage would put it, is somehow an instant expert on our civil rights.” But how many blow jobs does it take to make you a Russia expert?

Exhibit Two: Also last week, Eric Sasson, a Wall Street Journal blogger, published a piece at Salon on the Nikolai Alekseev mess. He reviews the grim record of Alekseev’s anti-Semitism, but then gets down to the 64,000 ruble question: “Just how does the Russian LGBT community move forward when its most prominent voice loses his credibility?” The answer is, it can’t, and its credibility is shot. The whole initiative lies with activists in the West: “We have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot do so.  This is exactly what the propaganda ban is about: denying a class of people the right to stand up for themselves.”

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

In the process he attacks Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who dared to suggest that “a truly effective fight for LGBT rights” means listening and giving priority to what Russians themselves say and do. Vanden Heuvel, he says, simply seeks “to dismiss the efforts of Westerners (including activists such as Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage and journalists such as John Aravosis and Richard Socarides).” We need to remember how important those people are, “given that the propaganda ban effectively denies Russian LGBT citizens the right to protest freely.”

The law is awful, but Sasson is silly if he thinks it has shut “Russian LGBT citizens” up for good. They continue to organize, protest, and write. Of course they demand and need Western support, but they are also perfectly capable of saying what they want, and telling Aravosis, Fierstein, and Savage what to do. It’s their country. For Sasson, the law really seems less a human rights abomination than a wonderful opportunity for Westerners to speak for “silenced” people. No matter how loud they scream, Putin says they’re “silenced,” therefore we’ll do the talking. The good intentions shouldn’t obscure the terrible methods here. As Teju Cole wrote, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Exhibit Three: Lesbian Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen gave an interview last week to Michelangelo Signorile, in which she said: “It’s high time to talk about asylum. The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is get us the hell out of here.” Masha’s an old friend of mine, and somebody whose opinion I respect a lot. She’s been a power behind the boycott movements, but she’s also consistently discouraged expecting quick results. Repealing the propaganda law is unlikely, she’s stressed, for instance; the best one can hope for is scaring Putin into seeing that it’s not enforced. It’s hard not to read this statement as a reminder that the US has limited clout in Russia, that persecution and arrest are real threats, and that we have a responsibility to clean up our own act where the human right to asylum is concerned.

That’s not how the comment played, though. By the time the meme-makers had mangled it, this was spreading over Facebook like kudzu:

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Bullshit. No activists are “begging” for asylum. They’re not abject mendicants. Most activists in Russia are courageously working and fighting on. But we need to feel that Russians need us. So we translate even a message that there’s not much we can do into a satisfying cry for help. How great to live in a country people want so desperately to get into! Let’s not think about immigration reform, though (does anybody even remember that?) As Teju Cole wrote, for the White Savior Industrial Complex, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

None of this is the stuff of successful campaigning. It’s the raw material for personal catharsis, not change. And in fact, despite all the urgent talk of concentration camps and gas chambers, the Russia campaigns aren’t going swimmingly. The anti-Stoli side of the boycott came in for withering ridicule in last week’s New York Times. More importantly, nothing in Putin’s Russia has budged; new, worse law proposals keep coming. Aravosis tried to tabulate the boycott’s successes today, while reproving Weir:

The only reason that Johnny Weir is even on Keith Olbermann’s show is because the boycott took an issue that most people didn’t care about and made it an international scandal with non-stop coverage going on seven weeks now. No one outside of the gay blogs and the very occasional news article was talking about Russia’s draconian crackdown on its gay and trans citizens, and it certainly wasn’t being discussed on a daily basis like it is now.  Yet, just days ago, the issue was raised at the G20 summit by both President Obama and the British Prime Minister. … It happened because some activists called for a boycott which caught the attention of the gay community, the media and the world.

This is getting the cart before the ass, I think. The boycotts creatively rode a wave of indignation that was already rising; they didn’t create it. But even granting the point (which Gessen also agrees with) that the boycotts have done a lot to crystallize public attention: what do you do with that public attention? Just getting publicity is not, is never, the point. Even pressing Obama to talk to Putin is not the point, as long as Putin doesn’t listen. If the Olympics stay in Sochi, what’s the plan? What are you going to do when Sochi’s over, and the law’s still there?  Can you mobilize people for something more sustained and demanding than dumping vodka in a drain? What actually are your concrete goals, short of bringing Putin down?

I don’t yet hear answers to any of these questions — and that’s partly because even to take a stab at answers, you’d have to pay some serious heed to Russian activists, especially Russians outside New York. Short of that, all this attention-catching and publicity-grabbing mainly mean attention and publicity for Dan Savage and the rest. Russian activists, Russian movements, and ordinary Russians facing silence or arrest are still waiting to see what it means for them.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: "If you want to be like me, just train!" No comment.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: “If you want to be like me, just train!” No comment.