Is Brittney Griner a prisoner of war? We asked the experts

Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022
Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022 Photo: AFP via Getty Images

For just over six months, Brittney Griner has been imprisoned in the Russian Federation for possession of a vape pen that held a small amount of cannabis oil. The basketball star’s nightmarish saga has recently entered a new stage, with the announcement that the lesbian icon has appealed her nine-year prison sentence. 

As questions over Griner’s detainment swirled, LGBTQ Nation asked experts if the WNBA champion and two-time league scoring champion was a prisoner of war.

Griner pled guilty to the charges against her during court proceedings, but a narrative emerged that suggested she would be part of a prisoner swap between the US and Russian governments that would see her and a fellow American exchanged for a convicted arms dealer. 

As the political aspects of the Griner case became clearer, questions arose as to what role the intersectionality of Griners’ sexuality, race, and gender played in her treatment at the hands of the Russian government. To explore that topic further, LGBTQ Nation reached out to two experts in the field of Russian studies, who are also Persons of Color. 

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Race/Blackness in the USSR & German Democrat Republic (commonly known as East Germany). A. A. Brooks graduated from Haverford College with a Degree in Russian and has studied the Russian language and culture. Both are also public advocates and allies of the queer community. 

St. Julian-Varnon was adamant that the label “prisoner of war” didn’t apply to the WNBA champion, but tied her answer directly to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I do not consider Ms. Griner a prisoner of war, instead, I view her as a political captive,” they said. “It is important to emphasize the distinction between her case and those of Ukrainians who are held and tortured in Russian captivity as prisoners of war.”

Brooks was more cautious in his response to the POW label but was also hesitant.

“While the United States is not at war in the traditional definition of active conflict with Russia, her imprisonment is clearly conditional under similar circumstances as prisoners of war. Depending on how you define war she can be seen as a prisoner of war.”

St. Julian-Varnon and Brooks’ answers diverged clearly however when asked if Griner was being treated differently by Russian authorities due to her skin color and/or sexuality. 

“I don’t think that Ms. Griner is being treated differently in Russia due to her sexuality and skin color. Her worth in Russia is her celebrity and her nationality, so there is little point to Russia attacking her,” St. Julian-Varnon said. 

However, she also added her own observation, which pointed out how Griner’s case exposed the ongoing hatred targeted at minorities in the United States stating, “Instead, her case has highlighted the deep divisions in American public discourse regarding anti-Black racism and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Many detractors have used racist, anti-gay, and anti-trans remarks when discussing her situation.”

Brooks’ view on Griner’s treatment placed significant emphasis on her queer identity.

“I think it’s a possibility that she is facing an incredibly harsh sentence for both of those reasons (sexuality and gender), but I especially see the case regarding her sexuality. While Russia’s government lacks an explicit anti-black racist doctrine they have an explicitly homophobic doctrine.”

While Russia’s public view of the LGBTQ community is painfully clear and rooted in oppression, humiliation, torture, and death, less is discussed about their stance on ethnic minorities. 

Honing in on the dual pillars of colonialism and imperialism, Brooks went into the past to explain current Russian thinking relating to race relations.

“Russia is an empire maintained by a system of ethnocentric oppression. It’s not the same as America’s racism but Russia certainly has its parallel. Russia would also gladly exploit American racism by providing platforms for discourse but only in the interest of using America’s greatest weakness against it,” they told LGBTQ Nation. “Due to the lack of its role in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade during the age of exploration simply as a byproduct of geography, it lacks the same African diaspora that countries in Western Europe and the Americas have. Thus anti-black racism in Russia is not woven into the culture the same way it’s woven into any culture in the Atlantic world; at the same time similar attitudes to ethnic minorities living in, near, or adjacent to Russia are as much a part of Russia’s national identity as racism is part of the United States’s.”

For her part, St. Julian-Varnon pointed out Russia’s inconsistent, hypocritical stance on race relations within the nation.

“Russia has an incredibly complicated history with POC inside and outside of Russia. On one hand, as part of the Soviet Union, Russia welcomed thousands of African students to train in the USSR, yet African students regularly complained about anti-Black racism and violence. That paradox continues to this day. Russia has developed a strong relationship with Africa and hosts African students and professionals, yet it aligns itself with white supremacist and far-right political movements and does little to combat racist violence against POC (of a myriad of nationalities) in Russia.”

By providing nuanced answers to the multitude of questions surrounding Griner and the nation that holds her captive, the two academics shed light on the significant quandary that Griner, as a black lesbian celebrity, is facing while she is awaiting her appeal to be heard while at the same confirming the ongoing murkiness in appraising her treatment by the Putin regime.

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