The Incoming Russian Roulette

By Steve Weinstein

Originally published on Advocate.com November 11 2013 4:10 AM ET

Barring a dramatic downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, in a few weeks, American athletes will join their counterparts from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite calls for a boycott from LGBT activists and their straight allies.

They cite Russia’s passage of a broadly worded law against gay “propaganda,” and another that, if passed, would take away the children of gay couples, as a violation of the Inter- national Olympic Committee’s requirement that the host country respect human rights. In some Russian cities, LGBT protesters and anyone perceived to be gay or even sympathetic to their plight have been set upon by street gangs while police passively look on or join the mob. Nationalist thugs have proudly posted videos of adult gay men and teenagers being savagely beaten after they responded to phony Internet postings, without fear of reprisal.

The outside world has responded with official condemnation and street protests. What began with calls to boycott Russian vodka has quickly spread to include demonstrations from Toronto to Amsterdam. The leaders of Western democracies, including President Barack Obama, have criticized lawmakers who, as conservative Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain wrote in a Russian newspaper op-ed, “codify bigotry against people whose
sexual orientation they condemn.”

March on St. Petersburg in May; pro- test sign at the Russian embassy in Quito, Ecua- dor, reads “Love always wins”
Above: March on St. Petersburg in May

Several straight members of the U.S. Olympic team have indicated they will “pack a rainbow pen,” in the words of Brian Burke, a director of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. The August World Track & Field Championships in Moscow may have provided a sampling of what may be in store for the Russians in Sochi: The Finnish sports minister waved a rainbow flag, a Swedish high jumper painted her fingernails in a rainbow, and American runner Nick Symmonds told Russian media, “We all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.”

The size and scope of the protest movement clearly took the IOC by surprise. It tried to defuse the situation with a statement reassuring the world, “The legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the games.” When the newly elected IOC president took a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, he told reporters, “We did not discuss the law.” He might have been joking, but it showed how much the issue has moved to the forefront. IOC delegates and officials have been reduced to bickering over whether rainbow pins and nail polish will be allowed at the games.


At left: Police detain activist outside Sochi’s Olympic headquarters

The IOC’s confused response hasn’t surprised its many critics, who have long complained about the organization’s incompetence and corruption. More surprising has been Russia’s hap- hazard reaction; the government hastily issued reassurances that LGBT athletes and visitors needn’t worry about harassment, but the Russian sports minister’s warning that any athlete who “goes out and starts to propagandize will be held accountable” was vague enough to cause widespread con- cern. Russia was forced to include a promise in an official United Nations Olympic truce that it would “promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind” and asked the IOC to try to “stop this campaign and speculation.”

“Russians are insulted by the pro- tests,” Tanya Domi, a Russian specialist at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and board chair of LGBT activist group GetEQUAL, told The Advocate. “It shows, on the one hand, how unconnected from Western developments regarding LGBT rights they are, and on the other, a very common thread through Russian history is: ‘We don’t really care what you think in the West. Your values are not our values.’”

What worries Russians and the IOC more than disruption at the games themselves is a potential loss of income from the sponsorships that have made the once altruistic Olympic movement one of the world’s most lucrative franchises. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and NBC, which will broadcast the games, have all issued care- fully worded statements criticizing Russia’s crackdown and defending their own records on LGBT issues. But what is usually a triumphant marketing bonanza still looms as a potential public relations disaster. News photos of protesters underneath the giant Coca-Cola sign in Times Square pouring the drink down the sewer hardly jibes with the warm and fuzzy image the company has nurtured over the years.


Above: Dumping Russian vodka at Russian consulate in New York

Whatever happens in Sochi, this has been “a global breakout movement for LGBT human rights,” Domi notes. “This is what you would call a beautiful problem. Russia is hosting and enacts a crack- down on a discrete group; meanwhile, all these international institutions are taking up LGBT human rights and it is being mainstreamed.”

“This is a global breakout moment for LGBT human rights,” longtime New York activist Bill Dobbs says. “It’s not easy get- ting people excited about politics. We’ve seen a burst of grassroots organizing. We started something that’s caught fire in the wider world.”

Harvey Fierstein, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, spoke for many when he compared what is happening to LGBT Russians to the Holocaust. But unlike the Nazi genocide, today’s world leaders have been put on notice that this time, their citizens expect them to do more than just sit by and watch.