This weekend, the members of Russia’s 4×400 relay team made a point of exchanging kisses on the medal stand at the World Championships in Moscow. A photograph of two of the gold medalists has been widely circulated as a protest image. Folks wonder: Is this a European-style greeting or a political intervention? Is this women being friendly? Or is it anti-homophobic and maybe even lesbian?
Footage of the ceremony shows that it wasn’t just two who kissed. Each member of the relay squad kissed every other member of the squad. It was a flurry of kisses.
If you’ve spent time in environments in which people kiss when they meet, the gesture is certainly recognizable as a polite greeting. But it should also seem out of context. Usually you only kiss someone the first time you see them in the day. Kissing someone again after you’ve kissed them hello is odd. And kissing them like this in a medal ceremony is unnatural. There are implicit rules about who kisses who and how – men might kiss each other in one place but not another. Men might kiss women in one place, but not another. But generally, if folks are in the practice of greeting with a kiss, women kiss and are kissed. But not when they are getting medals. In that case, maybe the person putting the medal around your neck kisses you. On the cheek. Maybe. (Generally, it’s a handshake.) But you don’t kiss your teammates. You hug. Which is much friendlier, actually, than a kiss. And, in any case, kissing on the lips – that’s reserved for very particular exchanges. Yes, people kiss on the lips as a greeting – but it is definitely a (very polite) step towards rather than away from intimacy.
The runners gave photographers a very specific photo opportunity. Again and again.
Are these the polite kisses of housewives or are they expressions of gender rebellion? Is it politics? Or is this personal? Is this Western media run amok, looking for gay anything because it makes a good story? In a homophobic environment lesbian desire, love and attachment is both prohibited and also persistently erased. It is erased by the determination to imagine that women have no active sexuality at all (in which case, a woman wants only to be the object of a man’s desire), and also by massive cultural hostility to feminism – as a practice of caring for and about women.
As Dave Zirin writes, folks want to draw from this kiss an analogy to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s 1968 black power salute. But, he rightly observes, we can’t. He notes, for example that where Carlos and Smith’s raised fists silenced the whole stadium and then drew jeers, people in the Moscow stadium seemed not to notice that the kisses might be an intervention. They didn’t interrupt the ceremony in any way.
The difference between these moments is interesting for all sorts of reasons. But here I’ll just ask: What would a queer feminist power salute look like, if not a kiss? What could be more queer, in fact, than a gesture that makes you look at the explicit homosociality of sports differently – as potentially, at least where women are concerned, always already political? Is it the kiss itself that does that? Or is it, in fact, the homophobic context in which the kiss is staged?
When we look for gay signs and signals, we mirror the homophobic public sphere conjured by Russia’s prohibition of queer “propaganda.” It is not, in other words, Western media that is making a gay spectacle out of sports – it is the virulence of the homophobic public sphere that Russia’s government is nurturing. We can trust that the sport spectacle will inspire new heights of paranoia and fantasy within this Russian context.
Athletes have been asked to tone down even the most discreet demonstrations of support for Russia’s LGBITQ community. Even Rainbow colored finger nails are too political. Nevertheless, women can kiss on the podium at a world championship event in that context, and folks ask themselves “what did we see”? Russian officials are happy to tell us: nothing.
This speaks to a big question – a question at the heart of Russia’s hateful laws: How do we see sexuality? How does one regulate sexuality as something that is seen? That question has never not framed queer activism. It was taken up most explicitly and most consistently, however, by AIDS activist organizations like Gran Fury.
In 1989 and 1990, a poster of lesbian, gay and straight couples kissing was mounted onto the sides of NYC buses. It was a part of a series of images of queer kisses – others were captioned with the demand, “READ MY LIPS.”
The Russian team’s kiss draws out their context: a world that scrutinizes every gesture, every movement towards members of the same sex, looking for and beating out signs of the queer from the social body. All public displays of affection unfold within cultural tradition and social practice. There is something distinctly powerful about a group of women athletes staging the warmest and most polite of gestures within a context in which that gesture is also quite clearly political.
What could be nicer, more queer or more feminist that meeting the world with a kiss on the lips?