London’s Sochi protest: what a drag

The protesters demonstrated they have more faith in sports bureaucrats and multinationals than the Russian people.

It’s the evening of Wednesday 5 February. I’m in Whitehall, attending a demonstration as part of a ‘Global Speak Out’ taking place in 19 countries, which hopes to use the imminent Sochi Winter Olympic Games to highlight discrimination against gays in Russia. The demonstration, organised by campaign group All Out and supported by the Peter Tatchell Foundation, is attended by just a few hundred people – not surprising perhaps, considering the Tube strike and the bitterly cold weather. 


Protesters in drag, braving the cold

The demonstration is incredibly subdued. There are no chants. Instead, the demonstrators stand silently holding their placards or quietly chatting to one another. Even a smattering of men in drag, braving the cold in flamboyant Mardi Gras get-up, fail to enliven the atmosphere.

Tatchell, looking every bit the revolutionary in a Guevara-esque beret complete with red star, takes to the podium to lay out the demands of the campaign. The campaign aims to promote Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which states that discrimination is incompatible with Olympic values; Tatchell explains that they hope to achieve this in two ways.

Firstly, while Tatchell doesn’t call for an outright boycott of the games, he does call for the government to endorse a ‘VIP boycott’ of the opening and closing ceremonies – barring politicians and famous representatives from attending. He believes that having an empty VIP section in the stadium would send a powerful message about what the world thinks about Russia’s anti-gay policies.


Peter Tatchell in Guevara-esque cap

However, some of the other campaigners seem unsure this was precisely the right plan. Following Tatchell, Labour MP Chris Bryant, seemingly oblivious to the demands of the event at which he has been invited to speak, says ‘Obama has led the way’ by sending retired tennis star, lesbian and outspoken critic of Russia, Billie Jean King, as his representative to Sochi. (King has now withdrawn from attending the games because her mother is gravely ill.) Bryant favours sending our gay sports-related celebrities like Tom Daley and Clare Balding. So it seems for Bryant it’s not about refusing to send a representative, it’s about sending the right kind representative.

The second and, judging by the placards, more important demand, is to call on the sponsors of the games, like mega-corporations McDonalds and Coca-Cola, to condemn Russia. TV presenter Paul O’Grady repeats these sentiments, saying that failing to condemn Russia’s treatment of homosexuals would be the equivalent of supporting the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. For a gaggle of lefties, people who usually pride themselves on being anti-corporate, to call on the very corporations they claim to loathe to act as the moral guardians of the world is rather absurd.

Wendyl Harris, one of the original members of the radical gay-rights group Outrage! tells me that she would have preferred the games to be moved elsewhere, but failing that the sponsors must take a stand. ‘We are their consumers and we expect them to respect us’, she says, adding that the government must act to enforce this show of ‘respect’. She also believes that the British government has a ‘special moral responsibility to former colonies’ and should exert pressure on countries like Nigeria and Uganda where anti-gay laws are in place.


Protester calling out Coca-Cola

This sums up the tone of the campaign and the demonstration. It is populated by well-meaning individuals who see themselves as expressing ‘solidarity’ with gay people in Russia, but who entirely misunderstand the meaning of the word. In calling upon governments and corporations to act, they display a complete lack of faith that the people in countries like Russia have the ability to take on and defeat the prejudicial laws in their own societies.     

The strangest moment of the evening comes when the Russian national anthem is played while protesters made the ‘Principle 6 salute’ - a gesture that involves thrusting both hands in the air with five fingers extended on one hand and a thumb on the other. This was done to demonstrate that the protests were not anti-Russian. Hearing the Russian national anthem played on loudspeakers just outside Downing Street while surrounded by drag queens was surreal, not least because of technical problems, which meant the song played half way through several times before skipping back to the beginning. The whole ordeal went on for over 10 minutes. Like the rest of the protest, it was tiresome and pointless.

Rossa Minogue is a documentary maker based in London.

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