Making fun of homophobes is a national sport I can get behind. As the 2014 Winter Olympics got under way, news outlets across the world plastered their reports with rainbow flags, expressing support for Russia’s embattled LGBT population. The volume of coverage has approached the ridiculous: over the course of two days I counted at least 10 international reports filed from the same Sochi gay bar, Mayak. Even one journalist in a gay bar has to work hard not to spoil the party, so the poor Russians who came in on Friday and Saturday night for a peaceful drink and a flirt must have felt like animals in a zoo.
While western nations have decried Russian state homophobia, the persecution of LGBT people closer to home has received rather less coverage. The Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion released a cheeky homoerotic ad celebrating the fact the Olympics have “always been a little bit gay” – but Canada’s border guards have proved themselves to be anything but inclusive. On Tuesday the British comedian Avery Edison, who is transgender, travelled to Toronto to visit her girlfriend and was found to have overstayed a previous student visa. After hours of invasive questioning she was sent to a men’s prison.
Edison, tweeting from the airport as she was about to be taken away, said, “my treatment has been deplorable”. Travelling without the correct papers is not a crime: Edison was not planning to emigrate to Canada. But had she been allowed in unmolested there would have been a risk of some lesbian kissing going on.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expressing support for LGBT people in Russia, who are facing grotesque discrimination. But being less homophobic than Russia is not necessarily something other countries should give themselves a medal for. A lot of things are less homophobic than Russia.
Queer activists call this sort of thing “pinkwashing” – playing up the gay-friendly branding of a state or corporation to make it seem more liberal than it actually is. Britain likes to think of itself as a tolerant place, but the Border Agency has been accused of almost “systematic homophobia” by the gay rights group Stonewall. Leaked Home Office documents show bisexual asylum seekers being asked degrading questions during hours of interrogation by Home Office officials – questions that included: “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?”
A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian that “we do not deport anyone at risk of persecution because of their sexuality”. That would be news to Jacqueline Nantumbwe, a gay asylum seeker whom the Home Office wants to deport back to Uganda, where the crime of homosexuality carries a life sentence.
Last week I talked to her partner, also from Uganda, who spoke darkly of the “mob justice” awaiting the couple if they return. Britain is undoubtedly less homophobic than Uganda. That doesn’t mean it gets a free pass on treating LGBT asylum seekers like criminals.
Personally I have no problem with media outlets, businesses and individuals making jokes at the expense of homophobes, or hanging out the queer pride flag. It’s a statement of support that’s fun and costs nothing. But the fact that it costs nothing is precisely the problem. As soon as there’s a price tag attached, the foot-shuffling begins. The rainbow flag is supposed to symbolise safety. Hung over a bar, it’s supposed to mean that this is a place of refuge. For western nations to brand themselves in this way while subjecting LGBT people to humiliation and imprisonment at their borders is simply disingenuous.
While western nations flap the rainbow flag defiantly in Russia’s face, actual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being harassed and abused at their borders when they arrive seeking safety. Supporting the rights of LGBT people worldwide is to be commended, but if that sentiment is more than pinkwashing, it should be backed up by action at home.
As a distraught Avery Edison was shipped off from the airport to an Ontario men’s prison, following her humiliating ordeal at the airport, she tweeted, “this is ruining my happy-go-lucky brand”. Western governments who continue to dehumanise LGBT people at their borders might well say the same.