LGBT rights may eclipse Winter Games

Activists seek to keep spotlight on Russia's gay rights issues throughout games but urge caution over protests

Outside Sochi Organizing Committee headquarters in Moscow in September, police detain a gay rights activist during a protest against a disputed Russian law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” around minors.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

With just a few weeks before the Olympic flame reaches Sochi, signaling the beginning of the 2014 Winter Games, Russia is getting attention from media outlets around the world for all the wrong reasons.

The recent anti-gay-propaganda law has cast a shadow over the games, as numerous world leaders — President Barack Obama among them — have announced they will not attend the Winter Olympics in protest of the law. 

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert for Americans headed to Sochi. It cautions citizens to “remain attentive regarding personal security at all times” because of recent terrorist attacks in the area, and adds a specific warning for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) travelers, listing advice on its LGBT travel information page. 

The problem

Russia is certainly not new to charges of human rights violations, but the anti-gay-propaganda law, which prohibits promoting “nontraditional sexual relations” around minors, is different, according to Daniel Vaudrin, president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA).

“There’s something specific to Russia, in that human rights in Russia for homosexuals were progressing,” he said. “They were slowly but surely getting there, and this law has really regressed.”

Because the law sends LGBT rights backward, Vaudrin said, it makes it that much bigger an issue.

At the heart of the issue is the interpretation of what Russia deems nontraditional sexual propaganda. Well aware of the growing international backlash over the law, Russia asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to step in and try to help quell the growing storm of controversy.

The IOC issued guidance reminding all athletes that they are not allowed to use the games to promote any political agenda and that any athlete who does so faces being sanctioned by the committee.

Vaudrin sees this as a double standard.

“Will women be able to identify as women? Of course. Will black people be able to identify as black? Yes,” he said, saying it’s unfair to LGBT athletes to bar them from identifying as gay. 

There is still no clarity on whether such identification would be considered propaganda by Russia or a form of political action by the IOC.

With just three weeks before the opening ceremony, LGBT-advocacy groups are working overtime to try to keep the spotlight on the issues affecting their community, especially in Russia.

“There's a belief that LGBT people don’t exist within Russian culture, and these folks are doing some of that basic LGBT advocacy work to show that, no, actually we’ve been here for a long time,” said Ross Murray, director of news for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Murray is working to maintain attention to LGBT issues during the games, but without clarity from the IOC, he does not think it will be easy.

“One of the really difficult parts has been trying to interpret what is a political demonstration,” he said. “Is being out a political demonstration?”

To boycott or not?

All this controversy has led numerous groups to call for a boycott of Winter Olympics sponsors and of the games themselves.

But experts have urged caution when it comes to boycotts.

“We can’t boycott the games,” said Vaudrin. “Honestly, for people who have been practicing their sport for 10 or 15 years to be told they can’t go to the games is unfair. It goes against the spirit of the Olympics, and the athletes come first."

It’s also unfair to the families and coaches, he said. 

“We’re always talking about the athletes, but what about the parent who has been taking their kid ice skating for 15 years? It’s a great disappointment.”

Boycotts, often well intentioned, can also be misguided.

In the summer of 2013, gay activist Dan Savage called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka as a way to express outrage over the new Russian law. Gay bars temporarily stopped carrying the brand, and supporters of the boycott dumped the liquor into the streets.

The problem? Stoli isn’t made in Russia. It’s made in Latvia.

“Stoli is one of the greatest sponsors of LGBT events around the world,” said Vaudrin. “Even the president of Stoli has said they are a very pro-LGBT company.”

Boycotts prompted by knee-jerk reactions damage the credibility of the LGBT community, Vaudrin said. If people really want to help, he added, they should encourage companies to take public stands of support rather than boycotting their products. 

“It’s a bit harder to ask for a stand, because you really have to work for that,” he said. “When you boycott something, you go on Twitter and say, ‘Let’s boycott this,’ and you get 10,000 people to say the same thing you do. But when you have to sit down with the right people, connect with the right people and explain your situation as to why that company should put out a statement supporting your community, it’s a lot harder.”

Lost in the narrative are people protesting the games for reasons that have nothing to do with the anti-gay law.

Last Sunday, No Sochi 2014 met in Boston to protest the Winter Olympics because of what they say is a genocide of Circassians.

Zach Barsik, a member of the group, told Al Jazeera that Sochi is part of the native land of the Circassian people and that they have been pushed aside by the Russian government.

“We’ve been pretty much erased,” he said. “Every flag in the world will be raised in the Olympics, and our flag will not be raised, and it’s 200 years old. We participated in the ancient Olympic Games, and we are not being allowed to participate in the games on our own land.”

What’s at stake

Among the rallying cries on social media to boycott the Olympic Games and intense media scrutiny of the law, people seem to have forgotten about those most affected by the issue at hand: LGBT Russians.

It has been especially grim for LGBT people since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law. There has been a dramatic spike in the number of violent attacks on gays, particularly gay men and transgender people.

“What has been happening alongside of the law — and I think it’s something people believe the law has given permission for — is to have violent attacks on LGBT people,” said Murray. “Gangs have been attacking gay men and transgender people, attacking them and filming it, then posting it on the Internet for people to see.”

The attacks are vicious and widespread. Some have been deadly. Experts say LGBT Russians can find little protection from law enforcement, and it appears the situation is only going to get worse.

“There’s been the proposed law of taking children away from parents who are accused of being gay (and) now the proposed referendum of making being gay in Russia illegal,” Murray said. “It would be similar to the law that was just upheld by the Indian Supreme Court and the draconian laws in Uganda and Nigeria as well.”

The Russian Orthodox Church proposed the referendum on Friday, saying it believes the country is ready to return to a ban on homosexuality — a relic of Soviet-era Russia. 

“There is no question that society should discuss this issue, since we live in a democracy,” church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin told the pro-government newspaper Izvestia Daily, pointing out that polls show a majority of Russians see homosexuality as a crime or an illness.

“For this reason, it is precisely the majority of our people and not some outside powers that should decide what should be a criminal offense and what should not.”

It is this type of action that has Vaudrin concerned. 

“The only difference between homosexuality and every other group is that there is no sign on your forehead that says, ‘I am a homosexual.’ Even in the Paralympic Games there are people who identify as all kinds of stuff. It’s just who they are,” he said.

“Why is it so difficult for people to understand that homosexuality isn’t something you aspire to? You’re born with it.”

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