The Test: After Sochi, how will anti-homophobic protest be responded to at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games?

The Sochi Winter Olympics reinforced the myth that politics and sports do not mix.  Ahead of the event, the Russian government enacted tough anti-homosexual laws, amidst reports of rising violence against the country’s LGBTI community.  In the face of international criticism, President Putin was unapologetic; any homosexuals visiting Sochi, he declared publicly, should refrain from spreading “gay propaganda” and they should “leave children in peace”.

Those who spoke out for equality during the Games were given little leeway: gay rights activists and some journalists were detained by the Russian authorities; Cossacks horse-whipped protestors in full view of television cameras.  For critics, the fact that Russia was awarded the Games in the first place is yet another example of how principle has been crushed under the wheels of the Olympic juggernaut.

Another sporting juggernaut will arrive in Scotland later this month, when Glasgow hosts the 20th Commonwealth Games.  Sporting events will clearly be the main focus.  However government-endorsed homophobia –an issue illuminated so brightly by the Russian Winter Olympics – will still be in the spotlight.  Why?  Because the nations that Glasgow is set to host carry some uncomfortable baggage.  Homosexuality is illegal in 41 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries.  Penalties for homosexuality include 25 years imprisonment in Trinidad and Tobago, and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia.  Six Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.

This makes one thing certain: Glasgow’s Games will be accompanied by vigorous protest in support of LGBTI rights.  With memories of Sochi still fresh in our minds, how have Scotland’s political and civic leaders responded to this prospect?  And what stance will they take on the protests once the Games begin?

Preparing for protest

Ahead of the Games, international organisations from across the world are collaborating to ensure that Glasgow’s sporting events are accompanied by ‘visible protest’ about LGBTI and wider human rights issues.  The US-based campaign group All Out aims to project an ‘equality message’ onto buildings in Glasgow city centre.  For the duration of the Games, an exhibition called ‘LGBTI People of the Commonwealth’ will be shown at Pride House, the LGBTI venue for the Games.  Glasgow City Council has been asked to fly a rainbow flag for the duration of the Games (it is unclear whether this request has been accepted by GCC or not).  A variety of discussion events are now underway, aimed at establishing what other forms of protest might be possible.

Throughout this preparative process, the Equality Network has maintained fruitful lines of communication with the Glasgow 2014 organisers and with the Scottish Government, informing them of what is being planned, and offering advice on how to create a welcoming environment for LGBTI visitors to Glasgow.  For its part, the Scottish Government has been supportive and has provided some funding assistance.  It is fair to say that those involved in organising Glasgow’s Games are committed to creating a permissive environment for protest.  Critics have rounded on the plan to create designated ‘protest zones’ for protestors to demonstrate in; this is, they say, an attempt to ‘ghettoize’ legitimate democratic protest.  In truth, the designation of such zones is highly unlikely to constrain the locales and the frequency of protest.

What happens when the spotlight is turned on?

So far so good.  But what happens when the Games begin?  Having facilitated a platform for vibrant protest, will Scottish officialdom then pretend that it doesn’t exist?  Once the various protests are captured by the world’s journalists and by the inevitable mass of hand-held phone cameras, it is certain that Scotland’s civic and political leaders will be asked to opine on the protests and on the issues which have sparked them.  How will they respond when faced with a camera or a microphone?

Seasoned followers of World Cups, Olympics and Commonwealth Games will know that the convention for politicians facing such awkward questions is to bat them away with banal diplomat-speak; that sport is ‘non-political’ and that any comment on politics would violate the ‘spirit of the Games’.  “I’m not going to speak about that – let’s talk about the sports!” is the classic defensive parry.

But will Scotland’s political and civic leaders really take such an insipid position when presented with the chance to comment upon the protests and what the protestors are protesting about?  Rather than passing up the chance to speak out, is it possible that Gordon Matheson would instead seize the opportunity to highlight his outrage that lesbian and gay people are criminalised in 80% of Commonwealth countries?  How likely is it that Nicola Sturgeon would publicly agree that the Commonwealth must do more to uphold the principles of its Charter?  Might Willie Rennie back critics’ assertions that in failing to take action, the Commonwealth is in ‘collusion with homophobia’?

Of ‘Scottish values’

Speaking late last year, Shona Robison – Cabinet Secretary for Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights – declared that “The Scottish Government firmly believes there is no place for prejudice or discrimination, in any part of the world, and that everyone deserves to be treated fairly regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity”.  She added: “Countries will be in no doubt about our values when we welcome the Commonwealth to Scotland”.

If ‘Scottish values’ are indeed to express themselves during the Glasgow Games, how might they influence the words and actions of our political and civic leaders as they host representatives of governments which encourage homophobic persecution?  Would it be ‘the right thing’ to speak out?  Or could it be politically damaging?  Would speaking out risk tarnishing the Glasgow Games?  Would Scotland’s image on the international stage be strengthened or weakened if its leaders took a vocal stance against homophobia and the Commonwealth’s apparent unwillingness to address it?  These are undoubtedly challenging questions for those who may have to face them.

These questions may weight especially heavily upon a specific cohort of MSPs; those who voted to legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland earlier this year.  With this legislation, Scotland now counts itself as one of just seventeen countries in the world whose legislatures have formally endorsed this position.  This stance by the Scottish Parliament marked – in the words of Jackson Carlaw, the Scottish Conservative Party Tory deputy leader – “a fantastic, celebratory change in the mood, style, signature and stamp of Scotland”.

Carlaw’s words are memorable, for all the right reasons.  But as we look ahead to the Glasgow Games, we might ask whether his words speak of a temporary courage on the part of Scotland’s body politic, one focused only on the need for Scotland’s people to enjoy rights and equality.  We might reasonably ask whether others should enjoy similar support from Scotland’s parliamentarians?  Will the values which spurred so many MSPs to back same-sex marriage really be absent as the issues of homophobia, equality and human rights are illuminated by the Glasgow Commonwealth Games?

Many Scots will want only sport to make headlines at the Glasgow Games.  But many others will feel that if the Games truly are to reflect ‘Scottish values’, there will not be a blanket silence from Scottish officialdom about government-endorsed persecution which sees sexual minorities across the Commonwealth harassed, imprisoned and killed.
*A shortened version of this blog was published by the Sunday Herald on 6th July 2014 (article title: ‘Why Glasgow must not be seen to be following Putin’s lead at Games’) at:

Dr John MacDonald is Director of the Scottish Global Forum

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