Op-ed: Russia Last in Race for Human Rights

By Sarah Gouveia

Originally published on Advocate.com January 16 2014 4:37 AM ET

With the impending Winter Olympics, there should be a focus on national pride, sportsmanship, and celebration. Instead, some are concerned for visitors’ and athletes’ safety in a foreign country. The Olympic games represent the world’s ability to celebrate a sense of shared humanity, but what if this humanity is not actually being shared?

Russian president Vladimir Putin recently passed a law that bans gay propaganda from being shown around children. He claims that “there are no laws which punish sexual minorities,” but a law that punishes the expression of non-straight sexualities is just that. There is much talk internationally of the effects that this antigay propaganda law will have on citizens, competing athletes, and visitors of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The International Olympic Committee issued a statement about the games, assuring the world that they would “be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes,” but there is no guarantee that the Russian government will not discriminate against athletes or spectators who identify as gay, or demonstrate some sort of propaganda promoting homosexuality.

Viktor Romanov, the chairman of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation plans to hold a gay-friendly Olympics shortly after the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi known as the Open Games. He reveals in a New York Times article that he is apprehensive about this process, noting that they “don’t know how the government will take this.” Such uncertainty is rooted in the vagueness of the law.

The law simply states that “propaganda of homosexualism among minors” is punishable by fines, and the only definition given to propaganda is that it “promotes homosexualism as a behavioral norm.” Russian police are left to determine what is considered propaganda and who should be punished for such actions. The ambiguous nature of this law creates a culture of fear and stifles expression among the LGBT community of Russia as well those planning to attend the impending Olympic Games.

It seems that everyone has an opinion regarding this law, yet no one is prepared to present a plan of action. Who is going to step in? Many feel that this law is immoral and infringes upon rights that should be guaranteed universally, but have done nothing to change it. Some have called for a boycott of the Olympic Games, but others argue a boycott would be counterproductive. The Russian Olympics was last boycotted in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but this boycott did not achieve its goals. It did not grant peace to the situation, only retaliation from the Russians, as demonstrated by the Russian boycott of the 1984 Olympics.

George Takei, the openly gay actor from Star Trek and a vocal gay rights supporter, feels that Olympic athletes “should not be penalized” by a boycott, but he is disappointed in both Russia and the International Olympic Committee for their actions regarding the law. When Russia was presented with the opportunity to host the Winter Olympics, they “pledged to honor the Olympic code, which says no discrimination.” Takei feels that they have breached that pledge. Because of this breach, the IOC should step forward and penalize Russia, but they have refused to act.

Though an Olympic boycott may not be beneficial, there are other forms of protest and retaliation that can be taken against Russia. A boycott of Russian products, specifically vodka, could have significant effects on Russia’s economy. Other possible protests include hosting kiss-ins at Russian embassies, denying U.S. travel visas to anti-gay Russian politicians, and pledging financial support of LGBT activist groups in Russia.

The support gathered for the LGBT community of Russia should be comparable to the amount of public attention granted to the punk rock feminist band, Pussy Riot. The group became known for holding controversial guerrilla performances that serve as music videos. They received international attention after their performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the group protested the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin throughout his election campaign. Consequently, three members were arrested and charged with felony hooliganism. A “Free Pussy Riot” protest movement began, gathering support from celebrities such as Madonna, Paul McCartney, Sting, and Yoko Ono.

The magnitude of the response from the Western world in opposition to the treatment of the band members should be mirrored by the response to these discriminatory laws. Though the “Free Pussy Riot” movement did not resolve the issue of stifled expression in Russia, it did bring international attention to the issue. If boycotts and protests are pursued, the support of the West for a change in policy will be indisputable.

With such Western support, Russia will be forced to realize that times have changed, and human rights can no longer be swept under the rug. The Olympics are meant to demonstrate a shared humanity, but by denying rights of expression to the LGBT community in Russia, this humanity is no longer shared. Such humanity cannot be shared until a change is made in the Russian legislation that eliminates discrimination against sexual minorities.

The LGBT community in Russia needs help, and if people care as much as they say they do about this matter, then they should agree to take action. There should be widespread support for the boycotting of Russian products and public demonstrations of opposition to the antigay law in hopes that the Russian government will eliminate this discriminatory law.

SARAH GOUVEIA is an engineering student at Columbia University.