Who Can Force Russia to Change Its Ways?

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2013 7:00 AM ET

All eyes have been on Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, after Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law earlier this summer that criminalized so-called gay propaganda — a law that essentially criminalizes any public acknowledgment of being LGBT. But what exactly LGBT people and their supporters around the world can do to protest this policy remains open to question.

Two leaders likely to set the trend — U.S. president Barack Obama and U.K. prime minister David Cameron — last week said publicly for the first time that their countries will not boycott the Olympics despite danger facing LGBT athletes.

“I want to just make very clear right now I do not think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics,” Obama said during a news conference Friday. The president described the worldwide stage as an opportunity. “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 I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there.”

Cameron responded via Twitter to a call for his country to boycott and seemed to impart the same message. “I share your deep concern about the abuse of gay people in Russia,” Cameron wrote in response to British comedian and activist Stephen Fry, who initially advocated that the games be moved to another location. “However, I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

The Olympics would cast a huge spotlight on LGBT rights if activists take advantage of the moment. Out columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times called for athletes to flout the rules and wear rainbow flags during the opening ceremonies. Russian activist Konstanin Iablotckii wants others to join protests that he is planning during the games. His idea is backed by British activist Peter Tatchell, who says highly visible demonstrations would have an immense impact. And no matter what actions LGBT protesters take, NBC Sports has committed to covering the issue for American audiences — with an important caveat. Only if it is “impacting any part of the Olympic games we will acknowledge it,” said NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus during a news conference this month in Los Angeles. Still, NBC officials have recently said they will make sure all of their employees are protected during the games.

So with the rising threat of arrest, violence, or harassment, LGBT spectators and athletes are questioning whether it is safe to follow Obama and Cameron over to Russia this winter for the games. And then they’re wondering what more can really be done to advance LGBT rights.

Why Some Welcome A Boycott
Organizers behind the boycott around the Olympics are careful to emphasize that their campaign is not a boycott for athletes. RUSA LGBT, an organization of Russian immigrants and expats that formed in New York, is targeting corporations that sponsor the games or teams, such as Nike or Coca-Cola.

"We don't think the athletes really should boycott the Olympics, because this is a celebration of sport," said RUSA LGBT spokeswoman Nina Long. "It's unfair for the athletes to have to do that, but a company like Coca-Cola … they could stand up for their interests as a worldwide company, and say, 'We cannot be for human rights in America and let our employees [in Russia] be discriminated against.' It's a double standard."

In addition to RUSA LGBT's sponsor boycott, a Change.org petition, and Dan Savage's Russian vodka boycott, a growing coalition is beginning to take action on behalf of LGBT and allied athletes. Last month U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler sent a letter, signed by 83 members of Congress from both parties, to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for more clear direction on protection for the 75,000 athletes and spectators who are expected to descend upon Sochi.

“The United States must do everything we can to protect those Americans who are traveling to Russia for the Olympic and Paralympic Games this winter. Russia’s anti-LGBT laws defy basic human rights that should be guaranteed to everyone at all times and in all places,” Nadler wrote. “These laws are completely contrary to the uniting spirit of the Olympics, which brings diverse nations together in a spirit of peaceful and friendly competition.”

But as governments around the world start to react to Russia’s law, the country is scrambling to convey how severely it will be enforced during the games. In July, Vitaly Mutko, a cosponsor of the law, promised it would still be enforced for foreigners during the games.

"No one is forbidding an athlete with nontraditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable," Mutko told R-Sport, a Russian sporting news agency.

His stance was reiterated Monday, when the Interior Ministry issued a statement at the request of the International Olympic Committee, saying that LGBT people can come to Russia, but they will have to remain quiet about their sexual orientation or gender identity to avoid jail time or fines.

The Mood in Russia
In Russia, the reality is that as organizers put the finishing touches on the Olympic Village and athletes around the world prepare for the road to the games, LGBT residents of Sochi, a city of 343,000 people in western Russia, are living in a state of constant defense. They can't be too loud, openly socialize with each other, educate each other about LGBT issues, or engage in any sort of gay rights activism without the risk of being severely fined, or even jailed.

The so-called gay propaganda law has already been enforced, as four Dutch tourists were arrested in northern Russia for participating in a Youth Human Rights Camp. Between recorded beatings orchestrated by neo-Nazis publicized through social networks, rallies that turn into violent melees, and the climate in the country regarding human rights, it’s clear that this law is being enforced to the fullest extent.

"On the generic level of homophobia, you're going to get bad looks, you're going to hear some name-calling," said RUSA LGBT's Long. "Late at night it's not even safe. A few years ago, there was this male fascism organization that will wait near a club,and say things to people as they left. Now that there is federal, state-sponsored homophobia, they're getting the message that it's OK to do that. The state is fueling this hate toward gay people."

Russia’s already antigay atmosphere seems to be worsening. Eighty-seven percent of Russians said they did not want gay pride celebrations in their cities, and 5% said LGBT people should be "liquidated," and a fifth of Russians say LGBT people should be cured, according to a poll conducted in March by Russian news service Interfax. That last figure has, in fact, grown over the last several years. Even a Russian news anchor recently said fining and jailing gay people isn’t enough. Not only should gay people be barred from donating blood or sperm, but their “hearts … should be buried in the ground or burned” to prevent them from donating organs after an accidental death, the anchor said.

"People forget or they just don't know that Russia became extremely homophobic very recently," Long said. "Russia actually didn't have any [antigay] laws before this. There was nothing to protect people's rights based on sexual orientation, but they also didn't have homophobic laws before this."

The Slow Crawl to Help
The first red flag to the international community should have been when Russian officials rejected activist and lawyer Nikolai Alekseev's application for an LGBT Pride House in the Olympic village. The rejection came even after the two previous Olympic games, in London and Vancouver, had included it, as had other sporting events, such as the 2012 Euro Cup. The Russian government said the Pride House was rejected because it would have violated Sochi's own "homosexual propaganda" law, which was already established before the nationwide ban was approved this summer. Now the Federation of Gay Games and other international sporting groups are looking for other ways to create safe spaces for LGBT athletes and attendees within the Olympic village.

As tensions escalated in Russia, Boris O. Dittrich of Human Rights Watch said the law is "clearly incompatible with the Olympic Charter’s promotion of 'human dignity,' as well as a blatant violation of Russia’s international legal obligations to guarantee non-discrimination and respect for freedom of expression," in a June letter to the International Olympic Committee.

This week IOC executive C.K. Wu said the sporting organization has been pressing the Russian government to provide written reassurance that LGBT people will at least be protected during the games. IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell reiterated the Olympic charter’s rule that sport is a human right, regardless of sexual orientation, and that all athletes, spectators, officials, and media should be able to experience the games free of discrimination.

"We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardize this principle," Mitchell said in a statement to The Advocate. "As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators, and the media. Wider political issues in the country are best dealt with by other international organizations more suited to this endeavor.”

Mark Naimark of the Federation of Gay Games, which has taken on the task of coordinating LGBT Pride Houses at multiple sporting events, said the IOC's response to Russia’s law was lackluster until it was forced to act due to international media attention.

"The IOC is very involved with the legal status of the host countries," Naimark said. "They require changes of the law, but those usually involve intellectual property rights. They want to preserve the interests of their sponsors. There are also laws about guerrilla marketing and the use of trademarks. And those, they impose on the host country, but anything having to do with something vaguely associated with human rights, it's out of their hands, they claim."

But even if tensions force Russia to suspend the so-called propaganda law during the weeks of the games, that will not necessarily be of much help to the LGBT people who live there.

Some Want a Boycott, Others Prefer Action
In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter took action when he issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union: abandon the invasion of Afghanistan, or the U.S. would not participate in the Olympic Games that summer. A few months later, Moscow's Olympic Village was void of more than 60 nations, including Canada, Japan, Israel, and Iran. Politically, it was a bold message in the midst of the Cold War, but the boycott provided a sore spot for athletes who had trained for years or even lifetimes for their moment at the Olympics.

Three decades later, President Obama said at a press conference that the United States would not boycott the winter games.

“We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed,” he said. “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the antigay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”

Meanwhile, though the U.S. Olympic Committee did not comment for this story, members are said to be in active discussions with the State Department over American athletes' safety. USOC CEO Scott Blackmun notified the heads of multiple governing bodies of sports in the U.S., that a plan is under way to protect "every American in Sochi."

Though some LGBT people in Russia are asking foreigners to abstain from coming to their country and buying its products, especially for the Olympics, some, like Konstanin Iablotckii, encourage LGBT Olympians and spectators to participate in planned protests.

"I do not only recommend [that LGBT competitors come to Sochi], I call out all participants to come to Sochi and show their solidarity with us by a number of actions during the opening ceremony, and the Olympic games," Iablotckii said, including hand-holding protests and raising rainbow flags.

Athletes such as American figure skater Johnny Weir (a Russophile who is married to a Russian man) and New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup have both said they were concerned about Russia's laws but that they still planned to compete with the goal of qualifying for the games.

In February, Weir advised athletes and spectators not to "be aggressive, don't wear a big rainbow flag fur coat," or call attention to themselves. Now that the law passed, however, Weir still encourages people to compete, but his advice takes a more stern tone.

"The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating human rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions," he wrote in a column for a Virginia newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press. "I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia’s stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof. I beg the gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world."

British comedian Fry now says it would not be realistic to move the games at this point, but he called on athletes who are LGBT allies to wear a rainbow pin or another symbol to show solidarity and raise awareness around Russia’s gay rights problem.

“All our athletes and all athletes in the games should find a symbol whether it's during the performance of a piece, or at the end of it whether its the slalom, or whatever it is, and definitely on the medal podium … just to show solidarity,” he told the BBC Saturday. “To take some of the sweetness of victory out of Putin's mouth, to show they are thinking of the gay people of Russia who are being tormented and brutalized every day, and indeed are committing suicide at alarming rates.”

Restricting expression for LGBT athletes and spectators, however, does not stop with the Sochi Olympic games. This year's track and field world championships, the 2017 World Bobsleigh Championships, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup will all be held in cities across Russia. These events, coincidentally, are all sporting events that would typically be welcoming of a Pride House, just like the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Naimark says that through the years, governments and sport regulators alike have become more welcoming of LGBT athletes and the support of the Pride House, but that's not the case in Russia, where sporting events will continue to be hosted.

While the idea of a boycott is still being weighed, the real difference, says David McFarland of United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment, will be more sports organizations like FIFA and the IOC coming together to demand that Russia change its ways, and the sporting industry may be the best candidate for the job.

"Sport has never been more global or influential, but we're living in a new era of sport as a business," McFarland said. "As we celebrate the athletes and the Olympic games, what we're also seeing is the intersection of business and sport, but in Russia, we're seeing the integrity of sport being violated."