Last week in the Masculinities 101 Week in Review, I posted an article from the Huffington Post which analyzed the potential enactment of the Russian legislation banning “gay propaganda” in Sochi. With the continuation of the Olympics, scholars and activists invested in issues of gender and sexual equality remain skeptical about the choice of venue given Russia’s blatantly homophobic laws. I was intrigued to come across a video from the satirical “news” site, the Onion, (courtesy of two good friends) that reminded me that, on this issue, Russia shares a lot in common with the United States. While many were quick to throw Russia under the bus for their politics, homophobia remains a significant problem in the U.S., especially, though not exclusively, in the context of sports.
Intended as a spoof, the video features a Russian newscaster with English “subtitles.” The newscaster explains Russia’s praise for the United States and its history of “making gay athletes unsafe and unwelcome.” The video includes clips from televised U.S. sporting events, in which fans and players make homophobic comments, and clips from Russian press conferences with fake subtitles that show the similarities between the two countries. The point is well taken: while Russia’s policies gain international attention, we forget (at best) or willingly ignore (at worst) that the culture of sports in the United States discriminates against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Historically, the culture and institution of sports in the U.S. reinforces and reproduces hegemonic masculinity (see Messner). Players and fans use homophobic insults and slurs, such as “fag,” to put down opposing teams. These slurs are meant to call a man’s athletic ability, and ultimately his masculinity, into question. The act of invoking homophobia as an insult is one of the ways in which hegemonic masculinity remains hegemonic. Non-heteronormative masculinities are subordinated to and reinforce the power of the hegemonic masculine ideal (see Connell).
Given this history, it seems hypocritical that the U.S. would be part of the moral brigade against Russia. But this is the way that imperialism works. Just as subordinated masculinities serve to bolster hegemonic masculinities, homophobic practices in Russia are used as evidence to prove the cultural superiority of Western states, including United States. At least U.S. lawmakers do not believe there is such a thing as gay propaganda and certainly wouldn’t ban it, or so the logic goes. This type of thinking creates a dichotomy which subordinates Russian culture and elevates Western countries in the international arena. The binary, albeit a false one at least in the U.S. context, provides a justification for continued imperial practices.
This is why I like the message of the Onion video so much. By pointing out the similarities between the U.S. and Russia on this issue, the Onion reminds us that any claims of cultural superiority are false and that the U.S. needs to look inside its borders to combat homophobia.
Aitchison, Cara (ed). 2006. Sport and Gender Identities: Masculinities, Femininities and Sexualities. New York: Routledge.