The World Athletics Championships, Gay Rights, and Yelena Isinbayeva: you have to admit it’s a heady mix. The recently crowned (again) World Pole Vault Champion, 28 times a world record breaker, has joined the debate on Russia’s new law making it illegal to give under-18s information about homosexuality – the one Stephen Fry is up in arms about.
After her victory, she said, amongst other things: “We consider ourselves, like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys. It comes from the history.”
Isinbayeva’s been roundly condemned for her comments which – let’s face it – wouldn’t pass muster in the West. But what’s behind them?
Michael Johnson, the great American sprinter, claims Isinbayeva is surrounded and supported by the Russian elite, and was playing to that gallery. That may well be true, but it doesn’t explain how the Russian developed her views (which we can only assume are her own).
The answer, which this blog and Polska Dotty have oftentimes touched on, is that attitudes are different in Eastern Europe. Not universally so, of course: let’s make that very clear from the start. But I did detect an undercurrent of homophobia when I lived in Poland. It’s often at a low level; you might describe someone as a “pedal” or “fag” if you don’t think too much of him. More seriously – though this was now 15 years ago – a black friend of mine living in Poland claimed she was spat at in the street on occasion by passers-by.
It reminded me somewhat of growing up in UK in the 70s. Then, outwardly racist sitcoms appeared on our TV screens (“Til Death Us Do Part”), homophobia was commonplace, and people were more commonly described as “gay” as a pejorative term.
But we should add two things. Firstly, I’m confident Poland will become more tolerant, even if it takes time. And we shouldn’t consider our own house to be in perfect order. For example, the “That’s So Gay” campaign aims to stop casual (and worse) use of that phrase.
As for Russia, one can’t help thinking that their stance is more extreme, which may help to explain Isinbayeva’s comments. Russia, it seems to me – it’s obvious – is far from a liberal society, and this new law may just reflect its current state. But any more on that would certainly require a separate blog!
For now, I draw two firm conclusions from InsinbayevaGate. One, we should, as ever, recognise that we are all different, and this will often explain behaviour we otherwise find perplexing. As Insinbayeva said in her outburst, “Maybe we are different than European people and people from different lands.” That doesn’t mean we have to agree with her comments, and many of us (myself included) won’t, and will find those comments offensive, and condemn them. I’m just saying that incidents like this dredge up that age old, thorny issue of how far to judge others by our own standards.
But equally, I for one can’t abide hypocrisy. The latest news is that Isinbayeva joins a long, long line of high profile figures who, having said a word out of turn, claims they were misunderstood. English is not her first language. She opposes “any kind of discrimination against gay people”, it now turns out. This includes, presumably, the new Russian law that prohibits providing info on homosexuality to under-18s, that she previously told journalists “everyone has to respect”. If that law isn’t discrimination, then I don’t know what is.