The unfortunate potential for gay rights at the Sochi games

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Less than a month before the start of the Winter Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as the most sinister Olympic villain since Tonya Harding.

Having spent the last decade clubbing his country with vintage totalitarianism, the Russian dictator is eager to impress the rest of the world with his revived empire. Awarding the 2014 Games to Sochi is what one would expect from an entity with the moral reputation of the International Olympic Committee, whose legacy on human rights includes embracing Hitler on the eve of World War II and expelling African-American athletes who became ambassadors of the Civil Rights movement in 1968.

However, as a sports fan and sentimentalist, my instinct was to oppose the idea of boycotting the games, despite Russia’s grotesque campaign against LGBT life and culture. Specifically, I defer to the athletes who have committed their lives to achieving rarified excellence, and I generally doubt the effectiveness of boycotts that are exclusively passive.

Like any self-respecting Reality TV junkie, I adore Andy Cohen; and the ensuing criticism is couched with the privilege of a gay writer who has never been invited to judge a beauty pageant in one of the most homophobic countries on earth. Still, I was disappointed when I heard that the Bravo execu-queen was protesting Russia’s anti-LGBT crackdown by not attending the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow last summer.

No gay Russian was protected, no solidarity shown nor progress gained, by the missed opportunity for one of the most flamboyant (and culturally powerful) gay men in America to prance through Red Square in defiance of Putin’s violent ignorance. Cohen’s mere existence qualifies as “gay propaganda,” and his presence in Russia would have been a powerful test of the Russo determination to eradicate “non-traditional sexual relations.”

There’s the possibility that Cohen could have been thrown in a Kremlin dungeon or pummeled to death with (empty) bottles of vodka by a Moscow mob. More likely, he would have called Putin’s bluff while compiling the most kickass B-roll footage in the history of Bravo programming.

In a few weeks, LGBT Olympians from across the globe, as well as the U.S. delegation to Sochi appointed by President Obama, will help us all understand the Russian government’s sincerity in prohibiting any and all positive expressions of homosexuality. I continue to believe that Putin is too clever a tyrant to showcase his country’s bigotry for an international audience.

If he is not, or if Russian vigilantes defend their homophobic laws by attacking LGBT protestors, it may be a necessary moment in gay rights history.

For a movement that started with a weekend of rioting, ours has been a remarkably bloodless revolution. There have been generations of war launched by more subtle requests than asking God to revise his position on abominations, but the accelerated success of the Gay Rights movement in America has occurred without the violence characteristic of human rights uprisings.

Without question, there has been ghastly violence inflicted upon individual LGBT Americans in the 45 years since Stonewall and long before, and there remain too many places in our world where any expression of homosexuality or gender variance is a death sentence.

And in reality, two men holding hands are as likely to be attacked walking down most of the streets in Georgia as they are in Sochi, Russia. Our inclusion in sitcom casts and victories with marriage equality can make us ― and heterosexuals ― forget about the enduring threat faced by those who are too much of themselves in the wrong place where it’s always the wrong time.

I wish martyrdom on no one and abhor all violence. But it’s hard for me to imagine a vodka boycott or online petition motivating the world to eliminate its violent opposition to LGBT human beings. I yearn to show solidarity with Jamaicans, Russians, Ugandans, Nigerians and the many LGBT populations that live in endless peril.

I believe we can do so by committing to making sure that our homeland is as safe to LGBT individuals as we say that we wish theirs could be. Yet, I have lacked the courage to sit intimately beside another man on a MARTA train or exchange kisses on the platform the way the young straight couple did.

Our presence in our communities is as important as LGBT athletes being in Sochi, and I am cheering for their ― and our ― safety and triumph.

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