Despite international media scrutiny and criticism from foreign heads of state and hundreds of thousands of activists around the world, Russian officials won’t back down from the country’s controversial law banning gay “propaganda” — prompting calls for boycotts of everything from the 2014 Winter Olympics to vodkas associated with Russia.
Passed unanimously by Parliament and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 30, the law is aimed at protecting minors from “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and is so vague critics fear it could criminalize simply being openly gay or expressing any support for LGBT equality.
The propaganda law, part of a rising tide of homophobia in Russia (see sidebar, “Russia’s attack on LGBT rights”), includes a clause specifically related to foreigners, who could face fines, 15 days of detainment and deportation. The clause raises questions about the impact on thousands of foreign athletes, staffers, media and fans expected to attend the upcoming Olympics, set for Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia.
Facing mounting international scrutiny, Russia’s Interior Ministry — which includes the police force — issued a statement Aug. 12, claiming those attending the Olympics won’t be arrested simply for being gay, but asserting that the propaganda law will still be in place.
“The law enforcement agencies can have no qualms with people who harbor a nontraditional sexual orientation and do not commit such acts [to promote homosexuality to minors], do not conduct any kind of provocation and take part in the Olympics peacefully,” the statement said, according to RIA Novosti, an English-language Russian news site.
Alexander Zhukov, the head of Russia’s National Olympic Committee, stressed the law’s ban on propaganda to minors.
“If a person does not put across his views in the presence of children, no measures against him can be taken,” Zhukov said, as reported by RIA Novosti.
Yet as conflicting headlines illustrate, interpreting the new statement is as difficult as interpreting the law itself — especially since children will surely be in attendance at many Olympic events and could also read any pro-gay statements reported in the media.
RIA Novosti headlined its Aug. 12 coverage, “Russia Confirms Anti-Gay Law Will Be Enforced at Olympics.” The BBC, however, headlined its story on the same statement, “Sochi Olympics: Russia says no discrimination for gay athletes.”
But while the Olympics shine a spotlight on the law, others argue focusing solely on the impact on the Winter Games risks obscuring the much more severe effect the law has on LGBT Russians every day.
“It is about way more than the safety of our athletes,” noted Atlanta resident Winston Johnson, an activist on LGBT issues for decades.
“All of us should bring all of the pressure on the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee and the corporate sponsors that we possibly can, to let them know that this is not just about the safety of our athletes,” Johnson wrote in an Aug. 13 letter urging the community to take a stand.
“It is about condemning LGBT Russians and Eastern Europeans to a scary and dangerous future, with the tacit approval of the civilized world.”
To boycott, or not?
What to do about the Sochi Olympics divides LGBT rights supporters around the world, with grassroots activists and celebrities pushing for a boycott, and many political leaders, athletes and prominent LGBT organizations calling instead for participating in the games and using the international media spotlight to bring attention to the plight of LGBT Russians.
Celebrities calling for the boycott include gay “Star Trek” icon George Takei, gay British TV star and writer Stephen Fry, gay Broadway actor Harvey Fierstein, and more.
They are joined by hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists around the world. Hashtags like #boycottolympics are gaining popularity on Twitter and petitions to boycott or move the Olympics and the 2013 Miss Universe pageant hosted by Russia are garnering signatures on websites including Change.org.
On Aug. 7, gay rights group All Out delivered to the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland a petition with 320,000 signatures calling on Russia to change its anti-gay laws before the Olympics and demanding the IOC condemn the law.
“Holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi with these laws in place is like holding the Games in Johannesburg at the height of apartheid,” All Out Executive Director Andre Banks told CNN.
But the All Out petition stopped short of calling for a boycott, a tactic critics argue would hurt athletes who have trained most of their lives for the Olympics, without sparking change in the Russian law.
It’s a stand taken by other prominent LGBT groups as well.
“We are following the lead of the Russian LGBT Network, which issued a statement urging folks to ‘speak up, not walk out’ of the Sochi Olympics. We oppose calls to boycott the Sochi Olympics,” Brian Tofte Schumacher, spokesperson for the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told GA Voice.
“We believe the most effective way to use the Olympics as a tool to repeal anti-gay legislation and also address the clampdown on civil society is to use them as a platform for a strong showing of international solidarity,” he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama rejected calls for a boycott of the Sochi Games, stating in an Aug. 9 news conference, “We’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed.’’
Obama, who condemned Russia’s anti-gay laws, said he hoped lesbian and gay athletes would excel at the games.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which would, I think, go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there,’’ Obama said, according to the Associated Press.
Also on Aug. 9, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the IOC had “received assurances” from Sochi Olympic organizers that the law would not harm those attending the games, but he is waiting for further information.
“We are waiting for the clarifications before having the final judgment on these reassurances… The Olympic charter is clear. A sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation,” Rogge said.
Some 83 U.S. Congress members, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) have called on Secretary of State John Kerry to take steps to guarantee the safety of LGBT Americans attending the games.
U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir, who is openly gay and known for his flamboyance, opposes a boycott and said he will compete in Sochi if he makes the U.S. team. Weir, who has a Russian husband, said he would not kiss or make other gay statements, but still fears being arrested or not allowed in the country simply because he is so out.
Options beyond boycotts
Instead of boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, some activists have suggested that the IOC move the games to another country — a logistical nightmare that would likely be impossible on such a short timeframe.
Cyd Zeigler, founder of LGBT website OutSports, argues that rather than kicking the Olympics out of Russia, Russia should be kicked out of the Olympics. In a recent column for Huffington Post, Ziegler noted that the IOC has a history of banning countries from competition.
“It makes no sense to tell American, Canadian and British athletes they can’t compete in the Olympic Games because of a boycott over human-rights violations by Russia. It’s the Russians who are in violation of the Olympic Charter, and it’s they who should be banned from competing,” Zeigler told GA Voice. “People get that. Many have been very receptive.”
Meanwhile, other LGBT activists are demanding that if the Olympics remain in Russia, the IOC must create a safe space for gay attendees while also using the Olympics to condemn Russia’s laws.
InterPride, a federation of LGBT Pride groups; the Gay & Lesbian International Sport Association, and the International Lesbian & Gay Association decried Russia’s gay crackdown as “abhorrent” and issued three demands to the IOC: create a Rainbow or Pride House as a refuge for LGBT people in Sochi during the Olympics; let LGBT athletes and allies wear rainbow pins or carry rainbow flags during the opening and closing ceremonies; and have the IOC chair condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws in remarks during the opening ceremonies.
“A Pride House in Sochi would help both LGBT athletes and spectators by providing a safe and welcoming space during the Olympics,” Les Johnson, co-chair of external affairs with the Federation of Gay Games and a coalition member of Pride House International, told GA Voice.
Like Berlin in 1936?
Russia’s crackdown on LGBT rights with the Olympics poised to put the country on the world stage is drawing comparisons to the 1936 Summer Olympics, which took place in Berlin, Germany, three years after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took power — ultimately leading to the Holocaust and the deaths of approximately six million Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and more.
Stephen Fry’s open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and Olympic leaders begins with a comparison to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know,” Fry wrote.
“Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians,” continued Fry, who described himself as gay and Jewish and called for an “absolute ban” on the Sochi Olympics.
“I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself,” he wrote.
The Berlin comparisons angered Russian Jews who support the gay propaganda ban.
“Unfortunately, yet again we see people attempting to use sacred memory about the genocide against the Jews and the Holocaust for their own purposes,” said Berl Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, news website RT reported.
But Jewish LGBT activists from Russia aren’t dismissing the analogy, as the Times of Israel reported.
“The comparison to Nazi Germany immediately comes to mind when I think about how this law and other recent Russian laws are stripping people of human rights,” Jewish lesbian Yelena Goltsman, a former resident of the Soviet Union, told the Times. Goltsman now lives in New York and founded RUSA LGBT, a group for gay Russian speakers.
Even activists who stop short of comparing Sochi to Berlin stress their concern that Russia’s crackdown on gay activism is part of a broader effort to deny human rights and squash dissent.
“I am cautious to compare these policies to anti-Jewish policies directly — what I would say is these policies are just one part of a widespread repression of civil society which is deeply concerning,” said Tofte-Schumacher of IGLHRC.
Instead of simply focusing on the Olympics, “One of the most powerful things people in the United States can do is listen and respond to the requests of Russian activists,” he said, “and to see the anti-homosexuality propaganda law not as a solitary issue of LGBT discrimination, but as a just one part of a holistic strategy to limit Russians’ right to freedom of expression.”
Top photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (official photo)