Who Can Force Russia to Change Its Ways?

LGBT athletes will soon compete for their shot at the Olympic squad, but they still aren’t sure whether they will be safe in Sochi. Can anything be done?

BY Michelle Garcia

August 13 2013 6:00 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.

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