STEREOTYPES ABOUT LGBT IN BELARUSIAN MASS MEDIA INTRODUCTION
It is common for all people to create classifications of other people and events in order to get an understandable structure of their environment.
Categorisations can be made according to various criteria, such as gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, social status, etc. Such conventional and simplified view of other people is the cause of stereotyping. When someone comes into contact, based on stereotypes, he assumes in advance what can be expected from people belonging to a particular group. The reason for the pervasive nature of stereotypes is that people have a psychological need to categorise and classify social objects. The real world is too big, complex and changing to be perceived directly. People are overloaded with information, constantly encountering subtleties, differences, contingencies and other complex combinations of their environment. To somehow cope with this, people reconstruct the world into a simpler model, which leads to the creation of stereotypes.
However, stereotypes have significant drawbacks. Firstly, the individual characteristics of people who belong to a particular group are lost behind stereotypes, because stereotyping assumes that all members of the group have the same traits. Secondly, stereotypes repeat and reinforce certain beliefs and beliefs until people begin to accept them as the truth. Thirdly, stereotypes are based on half-truths and distortions. That is, having in themselves the real characteristics of the stereotyped group, stereotypes distort reality and give inaccurate ideas about the people with whom we interact.
The purpose of this brochure is to identify and analyse stereotypes about the LGBT community that were included in the sample of Belarusian media monitoring conducted by the initiative «Journalists for Tolerance« from 2006 to 2019. The examples selected in this publication are of an illustrative nature. They are neither the most typical, nor the most aggressive, or, conversely, exemplary.
The Belarusian media rarely write about lesbians separately. Most often, they are mentioned only in the context of general texts concerning the LGBTQ+ community. But when this does happen, the stereotype of the masculinity of homosexual women, their addiction to «typically masculine« occupations, sports, is often reproduced. «Nasha Niva« tries to debunk the stereotype in an interview1 with football player Sviatlana Astashava:
«I used to punch in the face the men who said I was a lesbian. I fought very hard. Then I dropped the case, because no matter what you tell them, they think that since I’m a football player, it can’t be any other way.« This strategy of simple denial has the disadvantage that it reproduces the stereotype itself.
In another article2, Nasha Niva breaks the same stereotype much more effectively when the author casually mentions that the sexiest woman in the world, according to Maxim magazine, «does not hide her homosexuality.« However, if most of the articles depict lesbians as emphatically sexual, another stereotype may arise.
The appeal to living and unique human stories helps to avoid stereotyping. For example, Tut.by article3tells about a family of two women who raise their daughters.
«I was running away from the war from the Donetsk region,» she begins to tell her story. — At first, I lived with a friend — in a rented room while actively looking for a job. I visited government websites, applied for vacancies. The choice fell on a plant. The position of a worker with night shifts, but as a foreigner without a residence permit, I had no special ambitions. I took the job. A significant bonus was a corner in the dorm. In the near future, to be promoted to foreman. If the enterprise is interested in me, it can apply to the Minsk City Executive Committee for a residence permit. I’m working on it now. But the most important thing that happened to me in this country is that I met her…»
This article gives a three-dimensional picture, showing the protagonists of the publication as individuals, telling about their everyday life and the problems they face.
Homophobic texts portray gays as a threat, a source of «propaganda« from which primarily children «suffer«. The leader in the number of such publications is
regional outlet «Vecherniy Mogilev«. In one of the articles4, the newspaper accuses opinion leaders of such «propaganda«:
«The modern show business has changed the natural «colours« so much that it has become almost blue and pink, even turning the moon into blue. (…) Politicians (…) do not lag behind artists and champions. But these are idols of youth, fandom of whom sometimes reaches hysteria. Going crazy, young people tend to imitate them in everything.«
The same publication publishes a letter from a vigilant reader who found «gay propaganda« on posters in a children’s polyclinic (the article «And this is in a children’s polyclinic«5), although he failed to «make sexual identification« of the figures in a vague photograph.
If one turns to the «Explanatory dictionary of the living Great Russian language« by V. Dal, «propaganda is the dissemination of ideas, teachings, and interpretations in order to gain supporters.« Homosexuality is a kind of orientation of sexual desire. It does not depend on ideas, teachings, and interpretations in any way, since it is not a volitional impulse, but a feature of the psyche that manifests itself despite the will of the individual. Even if a heterosexual person is eager to become homosexual, he or she will not succeed. Children who grew up with the same-sex parents are homosexual no more often than 6 children from opposite-sex couples. Studies of same-sex families for 30 years confirm that such education does not harm children in any way, and, in some ways, even benefits: for example, they are less susceptible to stereotypes about how men and women should behave.
The hypothetical threat that abstract gays pose to children is contrasted by media reports about cases of homophobic attacks in Belarus. In 2014, the newspaper «Salidarnaść« published a series of articles7 about Mikhail Pishchevsky, who died in hospital as a result of a hate-motivated attack. Belarusian non-state media actively covered this criminal case.
In 2019, a case of assault because of sexual orientation occurred on Kastrychnitskaya street in Minsk. Documentary filmmaker and cameraman Nikolai Kuprich was beaten by an unknown person for being in an LGBT company. Interview 8 with the victim was posted on the сitydog.by portal.
For the Belarusian media, bisexuals remain an almost invisible group. Bisexuals are mentioned only indirectly, through an indication of the protagonist’s sexual relations with people of different genders. Most often, the media support the idea that bisexual men are «actually gay,« while bisexual women are «just heterosexual.« Thus, bisexuality is erased as a self-sufficient identity. References to relationships with partners of different sexes usually appear in the gossip columns, which creates an idea of them as the follies of the rich, famous and overimpressed people.
For example, «Komsomolka» writes 9 that Johnny Depp’s wife dated a girl before marriage. A similar mention is made by the portal n1.by10, telling about Julianne Hough’s photo shoot:
«For the publication, Hough exposed not only the body, but also the soul. So, in an interview with journalists, Julianna confessed her bisexuality, and also reported how she openly told her husband, 36-year-old hockey player Brooks Laich, about it.«
Reading such publications, one might assume that such people often change partners.
Another image of a bisexual is created by the BBC article, reprinted11 by «Nasha Niva«. This is the story of an American senator who was widowed and at the age of 90 decided to remarry, this time with a man. Although the trend of «bisexual relationships are the domain of the rich and famous« persists, the image of a person who frivolously changes partners is transformed. The protagonist of this article is capable of a long close relationship.
In a number of media outlets that came into the focus of our monitoring, transgender people were portrayed as freaks. For example, it is so in the article 12 of STV about a transgender woman from Canada, whom journalists persistently call a man. An article from the newspaper «SNPLUS. Svobodnyie Novosti Plus« sets the reader up against the article’s transgender protagonist from the very first lines:
«Change one’s gender?! Most of us, in response to even a hint of such an action, will twist a finger at temple. But transsexuals are increasingly asserting themselves all over the world, adding challenges to doctors, politicians and, of course, ordinary people.«
Extremely incorrect article about a transgender man was published in the newspaper «Vecherniy Mogilev«. The authors — Victoria Karpova and Vasily Stasov — mix the article’s protagonist into dirt, not shying away from offensive expressions, and blame lecherous Europe for everything. In the article, the authors actually humiliate the main character, calling him a «weepy hermaphrodite creature« and «it«.
Such articles are counter-balanced by well-written texts. An excellent example of such publications is «It«: how a Mahilou newspapers made a monster from a modest rural transexual«14 – offers «Nasha Niva«:
«I’ve been realising through all my life that I’m not a girl. From the age of six, I already felt like a boy. And I didn’t have any boyfriends at school, and I didn’t want to have them. And I was making friends with boys, not girls. There was one girl, a snotty girl, she was constantly bullied. So I even defended her», Dzmitry recalls. — After school, I began to dress like a man, cut my hair. I even got a man’s job — I was engaged in pipe insulation. Only the HR department knew about my gender. They were silent. And the men, the colleagues, thought I was a guy.«
The same publication published an interview with Alina, a 15—year-old transgender Belarusian : «Neither my parents, nor sister, nor friends — not a single person from my past life agreed to accept me as I am. I managed to accept myself three years ago, I was 29 then.»
These articles show transgender people in many ways and not stereotypically, but like ordinary Belarusians who work on a farm or repair flats.
In inappropriate articles, there is most often talk about the «gay lobby« and «special rights«. So, «Vecherniy Mogilev« once again publishes in the heading «Now I will tell«16 the opinion of a reader concerned about «pressure« from LGBT activists.
«SB. Belarus Today« in its article 17 also reproduces the stereotype that LGBT activists pose a serious threat:
«The African Church decided to demonstrate its strength at this Synod. And it is extremely conservative. Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah said that the homosexual lobby had become as much a threat to Christianity as ISIS.«
The same rhetoric is present in another article of the newspaper «Vecherniy Mogilev« entitled «You are protecting the wrong people, ladies and gentlemen!»18 and published on the occasion that the expert commission under the Ministry of Information of Belarus found signs of extremism in homophobic texts of this outlet:
«Unfortunately, the fight turned out to be unequal. Devotees of non-traditional sexual orientation turned out to have powerful patrons in power structures. Not only did they not support the editorial office, but they did and are doing everything to destroy the truly popular print brainchild morally and financially.«
Such stigmatising articles are counter-balanced by a number of articles where the activities of LGBT activists are described in accordance with the goals that they set themselves — to achieve equal rights for representatives of this vulnerable group. One such example is an article 19 from Kyky.org .
«Belarusian activists of the initiative group «Identity and Law«, which protects LGBT rights, complained to the Pope about Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the head of the Catholic Church in Belarus. They were outraged by a petition to ban “LGBT propaganda” in our country, which collected 55 thousand signatures — not only among Catholics, but also Protestants and Orthodox believers. Kondrusiewicz is directly involved in this appeal, and activists believe that he uses his authority among believers to «feed prejudice and hatred against LGBT people.«
APPROPRIATE COVERING OF THE LGBT TOPICS: recommendations
We are sure that there is a place for a wide range of sexual orientations and gender identities in our world. And we believe that our readers agree with us on this. If you have a different opinion, we should make a reservation – here we will not attempt to convince anyone.
There are other places and texts for this.
Below are tips for those who seek to write appropriately on the LGBT topics. «Appropriate« in this case means free from homophobia, biphobia, transphobia.
ONE NEED TO WRITE ABOUT IT
1. ONE NEED TO WRITE ABOUT IT
You have probably seen that almost every piece about gender identity and sexual orientation collects a lot of comments, and noticed how aggressive these comments could be. As a result, some journalists who could make interesting and high-quality articles avoid the topic in order not to provoke another scandal. Conversely, hype lovers love this topic very much.
It is really one of the most discussed today. The beginning of the XXI century in the post–Soviet countries is a period when, in the collective consciousness, there is an active understanding of the diversity of gender identities and variations of sexual orientation. This understanding takes place in the media: on websites, forums, and social networks. Any discussion, especially a long and broad one, leads to the polarization of opinions: someone becomes a supporter of equal rights for LGBTQ people, someone becomes a fierce opponent.
Often, media reports bring about another round of discussion. The role of the media in this period is especially important, because the fast pace of modern life means that, even if a person wants to, there may not be time to get acquainted with the issue seriously – read books, look at the results of scientific research and form their own informed opinion. The opinion about the issue is formed largely on the basis of the information that comes from the mass media.
Conscious or unconscious misinformation on the part of journalists can provoke aggression against representatives of certain groups, up to cases of violence.
Therefore, we believe that today the level of awareness on LGBTQ issues largely depends on journalists, while the quality and depth of understanding of the problem in society depends on the work of the media, and those positions that are later transformed into decisions at the political level depend on information policy. This is a situation where journalism has the most direct impact on the future. Given the intensity of passions, today, competent and serious article can literally save someone‘s life. And that’s why we encourage you to write about it.
2. THIS IS NOT A DISEASE OR A MISFORTUNE
Even journalists who are friendly towards their protagonistssometimes describe one’s orientation or identity as a disease. This is done in order to emphasise that a person cannot change anything, he or she is «not to blame« for this. And there is really no guilt in this, but there is also no disease. The «disease« is constructed in journalistic articles through the choice of vocabulary («for the first time I realised that something was wrong«), stories about trauma situations (such as attempted rape), a description of how relatives help the protagonist cope with his/her «deficiency« (the brother of one of the girls in a same-sex couple, helping carry heavy things when moving).
But by describing gender identity or sexual orientation as a disease, the journalist provokes the audience to ask the question: «How can this be cured?» Or even attempts to find «treatment«. But what is not a disease cannot be treated.
Sometimes sexual orientation or gender identity is described as unhappiness. If an article refers to cases of discrimination, it is clear that the image of the artilce’s protagonist is constructed as an image of the victim. But we mean those cases when, as the main trouble and the cause of all other «small« troubles, the journalist sees (and presents to the audience) the very orientation or gender identity of the protagonists, i.e. when the centre of gravity is shifted from discriminatory laws, traditions and practices to the characteristics of the person in question. Such a description leads away from a possible solution to the problem – changing laws, traditions and practices to those that enable different people to live in the same society.
3. DO NOT REDUCE YOUR PROTAGONISTS TO THEIR ORIENTATION OR IDENTITY
«Why do these people want to be respected for how and with whom they have sex? Why do they want to be proud of it?» – this is a common claim towards LGBTQ people. But it is not quite at the right address.
More precisely, the question would be: why do the media, covering the topic of homosexuality, focus on sexual practices? Why do the authors construct images of protagonists, leaving behind the scenes their work and hobbies, communication with friends, plans for life? Any journalist can understand why this is happening: from all sides, homosexuals are the most ordinary, unremarkable people, while a journalist strives to tell about interesting things.
As a result, only prides and same-sex relationships come into focus. As a consequence, the audience has a question: «Why are homosexuals so fixated on their sex life?» What can be done about it? Talk about people, not about their sexual orientation or gender identity. After all, you would hardly write an article about a person just because he (she) is heterosexual (—)? Or because (s)he is a woman or a man?
Respect for the idea of equality requires the same attitude towards gays, lesbians, transgender people, bisexuals and many others. It makes sense to focus on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the protagonist of your article only if they become a reason for discrimination, for violation of rights. But even in this case, the main thing is a violation of human rights, not the rights of a gay or a lesbian. In other cases, orientation and gender identity are just as unimportant as hair colour or shoe size.
4. CAUTION: NEW STEREOTYPES
As soon as the media started talking about homosexuals (often), as well as about asexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals and others (less often, but also), new stereotypical images began to emerge. Gays are the best friends of girls and necessarily creative natures, lesbians are stern ladies with short haircuts and biceps like a paratrooper. Gay plumbers and lesbians in Chanel dresses do not fit into such images, which means they risk being discriminated against twice: as «wrong« people and as «wrong« gays and lesbians. Furthermore, any stereotypes create the illusion that we can say something about a person’s character, tastes, lifestyle just because we know his or her orientation or gender identity. And this impoverishes our understanding of the diversity of the world.
What can a journalist do? Show your protagonists, relying on the richest texture, giving preference to those «tricks« that do not match the stamps. This arouses the interest and trust of the audience, makes the article brighter and more expressive.
THE LGBT COMMUNITY IS HETEROGENEOUS
To an outside observer, the LGBT community can be seen as something unified and homogeneous, as «those who are different from us.« Therefore, it is often possible to see in the media a gay man speaking on behalf of not only gays, but also lesbians, answering questions about transvestites, about gender correction. In fact, the community, first, is heterogeneous, and, second, some community groups may have phobias towards other groups. Moreover, there may be rejection of one’s own group, and then, for example, they talk about internal homophobia.
For a journalist who has chosen LGBT topics, this means, first, that (s)he must understand all the internal diversity of the LGBT community and be aware of whom and what questions are appropriate to address to.
Second, to accurately represent the interlocutor, naming the organization to which (s)he belongs, not limiting oneself to general formulations («one of the leaders of the LGBT movement«).
Third, it is on the shoulders of the journalist that the duty falls to monitor whether the statements of your interlocutors contain elements of the hate speech towards other groups, and make sure that the drafted article does not broadcast negative statements without comments from the «offended« group. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that if you have given the floor to one representative of the LGBT community, (s)he will necessarily be tolerant of other LGBT representatives.
© ‘Journalists for Tolerance’ Human Rights Initiative, 2020