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

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.

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