"Gay rights, Winter Olympics subjects of debate at latest InFocus meeting"

The Spectrum

In June 2013, Russia passed legislation banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." With the Winter Olympics scheduled to begin eight months later in Sochi, Russia, the country received backlash from multiple global pro-gay rights organizations.

On Friday, Dr. Jonathan Katz, an associate professor and director of the visual studies doctoral program, moderated the latest InFocus meeting. InFocus is a monthly event that allows students to partake in a group debate on a current controversial issues in the media.

"To what extent are we talking about universal laws, and to what extent are we talking about national ethical codes?" Katz asked at the meeting, sparking a discussion about gay rights as pertaining to the Olympics and America's role on a global scale.

One student provided his opinion, arguing that Americans "cannot force an idea on people who don't truly want to believe it. The only thing you can do is try to bring a little bit of humanity to the subject and try to get people to see the error of their thinking and try to get them to look at a different viewpoint."

Katz then asked about the validity of the claim that queer people deserve "unmolested lives and civil liberties across nations."

Phil Tucciarone, a senior chemical engineering major in attendance, responded.

"To an extent, we have a moral obligation," Tucciarone said. "I would say not necessarily to insist, but to educate ... There is no reason why we shouldn't extend our moral obligation to an educational standpoint. We can't just bark back at a dog, but we can try to train it."

Many western countries have concerns over the Russian Parliament's passage of the anti-gay law, which Russian President Vladimir Putin supported. Some countries, including the United States, entertained the idea of boycotting or protesting the Olympics.

Although Putin claims that the Games will proceed without any discrimination, many members at the InFocus event felt strongly that members of the LGBTQ community still face prejudice.

Attendees said it is challenging to separate politics from personal sexual preference. Many acknowledged the Olympics are a business.

"The Olympics are a huge moneymaker," one student said. "That's what the Olympics are - it is about capitalism."

She continued to talk about how athletes have taken a stance against social issues in past Olympics. She praised John Carlos, an American track & field athlete who won bronze in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Standing shoeless on the podium in black socks, he raised a fist in the air to shed light on the state of black poverty in America.

Jim Bowman, the LGBTQ Wellness and Special Projects Coordinator at UB, said athletes find ways to protest issues in their own way, mentioning a Russian snowboarder who wore rainbow-colored gloves in protest of the anti-gay legislation.

Katz posed a question: "If you create a cultural context in which an individual may be able to have a private life, which is queer but publicly has to adhere to hetero-normative standards, is that free?"

A student replied, "Not if they're forced to."

Bowman questioned whether having gay rights but not societal acceptance can constitute freedom.

"I was in the military for seven years," Bowman said. "I lived in an environment where I was forced to live a heterosexual life in public and a gay life in my private life. I don't know if it's better or not. It's mentally challenging and draining and causes a lot of mental health issues for people."

Some students found it hypocritical of the United States to be pushing for gay rights overseas, when there is still inequality in America.

Tucciarone said he didn't feel like the American model was "all that positive."

"We draw very thick black lines between gender and orientations that don't actually exist," Tucciarone said. "People are people. We hang out in herds. We are creating this model that isn't ideal. It is a poor construct to draw these thick lines."

He said there must be a cultural prioritization of equality to transcend the homophobic society, and legislation can't be the only solution.

Another student responded, saying that although he agreed that legislation isn't the sole solution, it is a necessary step in achieving equality.

He then quoted rap artists Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "Same Love" which states, "A certificate on paper isn't gonna solve it all / but it's a damn good place to start."

Katz closed the discussion by saying there isn't an easy solution to the matter, and he reiterated the importance of communication in understanding society's views.

"The West is so torn, whether or not it is fair to impose a western model of LGBT queer civil rights internationally," he said.

Though the next topic has not been chosen, UB plans to have another InFocus in coming months.

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