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His Take: A Backpacker’s Perspective on Gay Rights and the Sochi Olympics

Over the past year and a half, Jamie and I have been writing articles based on the various experiences we have had while traveling throughout numerous areas of the world. In addition, prior to leaving for Asia, we had been outlining some of our favourite restaurants in Toronto and elsewhere. Our posts have, for the most part, been relatively light and written with the purpose of aiding others in their travels or simply finding a good place to eat. Taking this in to consideration, what I am about to discuss may seem a tad political, and as a result, out of context. However, a good chunk of our material over the past 5 months or so has been focused on our travels throughout Southeast Asia. Over the course of this time period, we have experienced a vast array of cultural practices, been witness to a wide range of governing policies, and of course have met and befriended people from a plethora of backgrounds, travelers and locals alike. The perspective that this 6 month trip has added to our lives is invaluable, and I would hope that it can shed some light on the concern revolving around the issue of gay rights and the Sochi Olympics.

“All In the Same Boat” Mentality

While in China, we were utterly bewildered by sanitary practices that seemed to be archaic, and quite frankly, a pandemic waiting to happen. Regardless, the Chinese were some of the friendliest and most helpful people that we have ever met. Upon arriving at Huangshan Mountain (just outside of Shanghai) to find that our hostel had given our room away, a local invited us to stay with him and his parents free of charge. In Vietnam, the history of colonialism and violence is overwhelming. From the occupation by the French aristocrats to the devastating effects of Agent Orange, a chemical weapon implemented by the American military during the Vietnam War that has resulted in millions of deformities among newborns throughout the country, it is obvious that the Vietnamese have been subject to hellish conditions over the years. Yet, they are overtly enthusiastic when greeting westerners and generally pride themselves in the forgiveness of those who have wronged them. The Cambodian people have suffered the horrors of genocide at the hands of the Pol Pot regime, and a visit to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh exemplifies the lows of which human beings are capable of stooping. Match these atrocities with the conditions of extreme poverty and one would expect to meet an exhausted, irritable nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Jamie was ill with food poisoning, a tuk-tuk driver who perhaps earns as much money in one year as most westerners would spend in one week or less, offered to drive us to the walk-in clinic and back to our hostel for free. The reason was simple: he could see that she was not feeling well. (We refused, and gave him twice the money that he would normally have charged out of appreciation for his kindness).

huangshan mountain

Our Hosts in Huangshan, China

In addition to our experience with the locals on this continent, it has been equally rewarding to interact with backpackers from all over the globe. Travellers from Sweden, Ireland, Germany, the U.K., France, Australia, Thailand, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, the U.A.E., Mexico, China, Japan, the U.S.A, Canada…people from countless nationalities, all crammed in to dorm rooms with anywhere between 4 to 20 people at one time (depending on the hostel), shake hands and exchange stories from their adventures over a couple of beers. Thus far we have seen no hostility and no bad blood, but rather a multitude of people looking to connect with each other. Obviously, some people get along better than others, but rarely (if ever) do arguments ensue. I know that I haven’t been the only one to notice this, as many backpackers that we’ve met along the way have alluded to their amazement with how friendly and helpful most fellow travellers are. It’s the opinion of most people that this is the result of the “we’re all in the same boat” mentality.

Connecting On a Human Level

I’d like to expand on this theory. If backpackers are especially friendly with each other due to this bond that is associated with the mere act of traveling, then why did our friend from Huangshan Mountain invite us in to his home? He was not traveling in the same sense that we were. In fact, he was returning home from Shanghai to visit his family, while we were thousands of miles away from ours. Furthermore, why did the Cambodia tuk-tuk driver offer Jamie and I a free ride to the walk-in clinic when she was feeling ill? He may not have ever traveled in his entire life, and undoubtedly lives a far different lifestyle than anything we can possibly imagine (and vice versa). Not for a second do I believe that every citizen of China would have willingly taken us in to his or her home upon witnessing our travel woes, nor would every tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia have offered us a free lift because Jamie had a bout of food poisoning. However, these two people showed great concern for our situation in both of these instances, and I believe that they connected with us on a more general level. I imagine that our friend in Huangshan was wondering, “If I were traveling in a foreign country and my room had been given away while all other hotels in the area are booked, what would I do?” Similarly, the tuk-tuk driver was likely thinking, “If I was feeling ill, the last thing that I’d want to do is have to pay for a tuk-tuk just to see a doctor.” The ability to put yourself in another’s shoes isn’t as common of a quality as it should be, no matter where you are in the world. I will always remember these people for their kindness, but most of all, because of their ability to connect with two privileged North Americans, travelling Southeast Asia for 6 months, on a human level.

The Real Dilemma of the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Moments like these are what the Olympics are supposed to be about: promoting the understanding of one another and putting our differences aside for the sake of something greater than politics or individual gains. Of course, this may be a bit difficult for most people, considering the inherently competitive nature of the games. I admit that come the men’s hockey final, I’ll be cursing any team that’s not Canada in hopes of our reclaiming the most important medal (in my opinion) at the Olympics, whether we’ve made it that far or not. Such animosity that sport can breed always generates debate about whether these events actually deliver on their lofty humanitarian goals, and this ridicule is fair. After all, if the purpose of the Olympics is truly to celebrate humanity, sportsmanship, and understanding, why then are federal governments willing to subsidize ambitious “own the podium” programs in countries such as Canada, or provide monetary incentives of up to $120,000 for every gold medal winner in Russia? The reason is, simply put, that it feels good to win. Success at the Olympic games increases national pride, morale, and instills a deep-rooted sense of confidence among many of its citizens. Doing so on home soil multiplies all of these feelings one hundredfold.

Herein lies the real dilemma of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. For all of the news that has been published in recent months outlining the dangers that may present themselves to athletes in Sochi, the reality is that these games will only last for 16 days. The aftereffects of the Olympics within Russia will last for much longer, and as a result we must be prepared for the long-term consequences. On June 30, 2013 Vladimir Putin signed a bill that made it illegal to promote “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” In response to concerns that the signing of this bill will inevitably result in danger for homosexual athletes and spectators at the Sochi Olympics, Putin has said that homosexuals will be welcomed in to Russia for the games, but has insisted that they “leave the children alone.” This is in conjunction with many Russian officials who’ve been comparing homosexuals to pedophiles, as well as videos that have been circulating the internet in which various Russian vigilante groups can be seen heinously attacking and torturing members of the LGBT community. It is crucial to note that the Kremlin is not merely establishing law that is discriminatory and depriving a portion of its population from basic human rights. If that was Putin’s aim, he could very well have passed a law defining homosexual activity as illegal and been done with it (not to belittle the immense harm that such a law would cause). By making it illegal to communicate about homosexuality with minors, it is being placed in a similar category as other things that governments around the world work tirelessly to keep out of the hands of children, such as alcohol and drugs. Essentially, Russia has launched a campaign to depict homosexuality as a danger to society. Simultaneously, they are hosting the Olympics, an event that can greatly enhance feelings of national pride and confidence. This combination of confidence and fear will only result in catastrophe.

The Lessons From Our Travels

So how does all of this relate to our experience while traveling? As mentioned previously, Jamie and I were fortunate enough to meet two individuals that we will always remember for their ability connect with us on a human level. I believe that this connection was fueled by their ability to understand our situation by placing themselves in our shoes. By singling out a portion of society as different, and furthermore, pinpointing the very thing that makes these people different (in this case, their sexuality) as dangerous, the ability to understand one another is discouraged and so too are all hopes for civility. As I previously alluded to, Jamie and I have also had the opportunity to be educated in some of the world’s most tragic historical events, having taken place in a few of the countries that we’ve visited in the past 6 months. Upon further examination of these events, it is crucial to point out the similarities with what is currently happening in Russia, for the sake of preventing such atrocities from repeating themselves.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in the latter half of the 20th century and in that timeframe, effectively eliminated an entire generation of the nation’s population. High on his own success after rising to power through rebellion, Pol Pot became progressively more paranoid that the KGB and the CIA were training citizens within his own country to assassinate him. His solution was to detain, torture, and murder millions of these “potential spies.” When an individual was found guilty of espionage, his or her entire family would be murdered so as to prevent the possibility of revenge against the Khmer Rouge in the future.

cambodian genocide

Results of the Cambodian Genocide

In the 1960’s the American military embarked upon its notorious “economic aid” mission in Vietnam, which eventually morphed in to the Vietnam War. The conflict was fueled by America’s fear of communism, its willingness to contain this economic and political ideology from spreading any further throughout Asia, and the belief that it could succeed. The American government deemed this cause reason enough to utilize deplorable weapons such as Napalm and Agent Orange, both of which have since been banned from warfare by the United Nations.

In both of these situations, the combination of fear and confidence resulted in tragedy of epic proportions. Fear allowed the American government to ignore the human impact resulting from its methods of war, and it was also what fueled Pol Pot to commit mass genocide. The Americans, having been the deciding factor in both World War I and World War II whilst emerging from these events as an economic powerhouse, was confident enough to act on its fear of communism in the 1960s. Pol Pot had successfully led a rebellion against the Cambodian government, and as a result, was confident in his belief that he could prevent his fellow citizens from working with the Soviets or America to overthrow his oppressive rule. We know for a fact that Vladimir Putin is creating a campaign of fear aimed at homosexuals in his country. The last thing that Russia needs at a time like this is the confidence to act on it.

What We Can Expect

The Olympic games will unfold over the next 16 days and athletes will be hailed as heroes in their respective countries. Many athletes who are openly gay and achieve success will be seen in the west as champions for the greater cause of acceptance, understanding, and equality. Many corporations and sponsors will speak out against Russia’s homophobic laws, in addition to the ones that already have such as Google and AT&T. However, this will not change the fact that within Russia, citizens will see their history and culture on full display for 16 days while the rest of the world takes it all in. They may not win the medal count, but they will undoubtedly have many athletes that succeed and these victors will indulge Russia’s thirst for glory that has been somewhat stifled since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is a dangerous prospect for homosexuals within Russia, as well as citizens of the world.

It has become apparent as of late that Putin has been increasingly assertive in major global events. In the Syrian conflict, Russia shipped missiles to Assad’s government in a show of force that was meant to block American intervention, and it likely did. Russia had no hesitation on allowing Edward Snowden to take refuge within its borders while his documents endlessly embarrass the head brass of the United States and its friends. Now, Russia is hosting the Olympic games, a bona-fide confidence booster. Simultaneously, and certainly in no coincidence of timing given the national unity that is often achieved when hosting the Olympics, Putin has gone one step further in promoting a common goal that will bring many of his citizens even closer together: the persecution of homosexuality. This tactic is not a new one. It was most famously deployed in the 1930’s Germany under the rule of Adolph Hitler. Russia is undoubtedly planning for a renewed battle with the west, and right now, homosexuals are the first victims of their strategy.

It’s encouraging to see multinational corporations herald their support for gay rights, and it will be thrilling to watch members of the LGBT compete and win in Sochi. However, more serious action will need to be taken to save homosexuals from a dire fate at the hands of Putin’s Russia. Western governments may be unwilling to take military action now, due to the unwillingness to engage in a deadly global war. However, Russia’s actions point to inevitable conflict in the near future. I sincerely hope that we don’t find ourselves in a situation twenty years from now looking back on why we didn’t act sooner, and how many homosexuals we could have saved from murder if we had. In my personal opinion, the only way that we can surely prevent that from happening is to act as soon as possible.

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