Comment: We should honour the life of Vlad Tornovoi by standing up for gay rights in Russia

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Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Tom Hayes says last year’s homophobic murder of Vlad Tornovoi should galvanise Britain into raising Russia’s appalling LGBT rights violations at next month’s Winter Olympics.

Volvograd, Russia. May 12, 2013. Early evening. One minute Vlad Tornovoi is laughing and drinking beer with his two friends, the next his body is stripped naked, battered and blackened from an attempt to burn it. It’s impossible to know how Vlad told his friends he was gay, but their reaction was shocking beyond almost anything else in Russia’s LGBT history, and there have already been many wrenchingly violent scenes.

Vlad’s life had meaning for his family and friends; as they have made plain, his loss sears their souls. But, Vlad meant particular things to his family and friends, and being gay was not one of them. Vlad’s murderers’ claim that he was gay is rejected by family and friends as a desperate bid to assemble an account of their actions that the court of public opinion could accept. Groping for the pieces that can restore a kind of order, Vlad’s friends took to YouTube: “Let us bury him in peace without your lies and rumours”.

Vlad’s friends who deny his homosexuality have plausible deniability as an ally. As one of his eulogists argued into camera, “He had no signs of homosexuality”. It is this capacity to confine oneself in invisible chains, to play the leading part in one’s own oppression, which fixes and binds the stories of gays and lesbians. The Russian Government has forced gays and lesbians to choose between confinement in an airless closet and internment in a prison cell.

The weight of expectation will be on LGBT Olympians, broadcasters, and sports enthusiasts as they gather in Sochi next month. Against this backdrop, it is the duty of British Government ministers to show leadership on LGBT rights in Russia.

Turning up is not enough. After 25 years of progress on equality in the UK, our political leaders cannot leave their commitment to LGBT rights at the border to spare Russia any offence or embarrassment. We should be alarmed that the Coalition Government are not being clear about the ways in which they will be supporting LGBT equality in Russia. We should also be alarmed that democratic governments are voicing the wrong answers because they’re asking the wrong questions.

Some try to explain why we should not boycott the Sochi Games by summoning concrete, simply understood, widely known history. In a letter to the International Olympic Committee and David Cameron, the talented actor and admirable champion of LGBT issues Stephen Fry compared Putin’s Olympics to Hitler’s Games. Fry’s analogy is implicitly accepted by President Obama, who insists the Games must go on with homophobic Russia as host and asks LGBT Olympians to battle for what’s right by winning medals.

By using the example of black athlete Jesse Owens, who successfully discredited Nazi racism with medal wins in Berlin, Obama seems to think that LGBT Olympians should compete partly to make their own Jesse Owens moments. We should be glad the free world has a leader so proud of LGBT people that he sees them as ambassadors, but being right a lot of the time about LGBT issues does not make Obama right here.

Just because Putin’s Russia isn’t very 2014 doesn’t mean it’s very 1936. LGBT Olympians can go to Sochi and be hosted by homophobes who deny their worth as the Nazis denied Owens’, but, their challenge will be different to Owens’. Whereas Owens was incapable of hiding that aspect of himself which the Nazis hated, LGBT Olympians can hide the thing which their Russian oppressors hate.

If you were an Olympic athlete right now, preparing to go to the Games you’ve trained hard and sacrificed for, and you were gay and closeted, but dreamt of living in the open, would you take the plunge in a country where your sexual orientation is practically illegal?

But visibility could be a life-line to many Russians kept away from positive role-models. The knowledge there are others like you, who see you as equal, and acknowledge your worth, is life-giving. By speaking inconvenient truths to power, we can stand with LGBT sporting heroes, but, as importantly, we can prop up our brothers and sisters in Russia.

British ministers should offer practical assistance to LGBT people in Russia by spending time with LGBT groups in the country to learn of their difficulties first-hand, objecting to the anti-gay laws, and calling for their removal from the statute books.

Ministers can also make important gestures by meeting LGBT activists and wearing rainbow pins during the Games to show solidarity. In so doing, British ministers can cause the Russian Government discomfort. No country spends £50 billion plus on an event without craving international prestige for hosting it. By defending equality, the government can deny Russia the prestige it seeks and signal that its homophobia comes at a price.

None of these things will bring Vlad back to life. None of these things will mean Vlad didn’t die a hard death, the bottles forced into his anus damaging his internal organs and the rock dropped on his head time and again rendering him unrecognisable. Nor will these things stop Vlad’s life story from being airbrushed, or necessarily even stop Russia from witnessing more murderous act of homophobia.

But, for those Russians whose bones ache with loneliness, whose flesh burns with misery, and for whom any gesture of solidarity is a lifeline, these things matter. That’s why this government has to do them. That, and because when it does, it also honours the bravery of a young man, and those like him, who died simply for daring to live openly.

Tom Hayes tweets @tomhayes1983

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