Russia is sending a message to LGBT people, but it is definitely not a love note. As much of the western world is moving toward greater acceptance and legal protections for LGBT people, Russia is moving in the opposite direction. National polls tell us that average Russian citizens are largely anti-gay already, but now the government in cahoots with the Russian Orthodox Church has proposed a nation-wide anti-gay law outlawing “gay propaganda.” The law is expected to pass.
What constitutes “gay propaganda” is unclear and that is part of the disturbing nature of this proposed legislation. It could include wearing a rainbow pin or holding hands with a same-sex partner. It could include a parent speaking out for an LGBT child. It would most definitely include organizing of any kind for gay rights or holding a gay pride celebration. It could mean anything the authorities choose to say it means. This backward step is consistent other efforts to curtail civil rights in Russia and quash free speech that challenges the increasingly oppressive Putin-led government and would be disturbing enough in and of itself.
However, given that Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Socchi, these developments have international implications for LGBT athletes and their allies who are planning to compete or spectate at Socchi. A Russian judge has already ruled that there will be no Pride House in Socchi. The first Pride House in Vancouver and the second in London, provided, at the least, a symbolic foothold for LGBT open inclusion at the Olympics. Though, so far, the Pride House is financed privately and sponsored by local groups, and not officially affiliated with the hosting Olympic Committee or the IOC, it does provide some initial visibility that can be built upon in future games. Not in Socchi though. Having a Pride House would, in the judge’s opinion, threaten the future integrity of Russian civilization.
The Russian national wrestling coach has even blamed the pending elimination of his sport from the 2020 games on a vast “gay conspiracy” to dismantle masculinity. You can’t make this stuff up. Taken together: the outlawing of the Pride House, the anti-gay attitudes of the Russian public, as illustrated by their deranged wrestling coach and the impending passage of a scary anti-gay law, the Socchi Olympics is shaping up to be a big step back for LGBT athletes and the LGBT sports equality movement internationally.
If the “gay propaganda” law passes, which it probably will well before the Olympics, what does this mean for LGBT athletes competing in Socchi? Will they be at risk of arrest or fines if they are open about their sexuality? When asked about their reaction to the ant-LGBT climate in Socchi, the IOC representative responded with a boiler plate statement about their commitment to non-discrimination and inclusion, but declined to specifically address the outlawing of Pride House or the impending Russian legislation. The same is true for the USOC who are, thus far, silent about the anti-LGBT climate in Russia in general and the Socchi Olympics in particular.
If the Olympic movement is truly committed to equality and inclusion, this is a great opportunity for the IOC and the USOC as well as other national Olympic Committees around the world to speak up. Unfortunately, the IOC does not consider a potential host nation’s record on LGBT rights when choosing where the Olympics will be held. If they did, we would not be having this conversation. It is time for the IOC to stand up and use the power they have to address the human rights records of host countries rather than reciting a meaningless commitment to equality after they have endorsed discrimination by choosing host countries that openly flout the ideals that the Olympics are supposed to stand for.
I understand that expecting either of these sport governing bodies to actually take some leadership on ensuring that ALL athletes and their fans are welcomed and treated with respect is folly, but we can hold them accountable for their hypocrisy,silence and complicity.