An uncomfortable Olympiad: Russia’s Olympics are particularly perilous for LGBTs

By : Steve Blanchard
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Sochi, Russia – Just as the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics were set to begin, Russian Police were arresting LGBT activists.
The Russian LGBT Network, a gay rights group, said four people were arrested on Feb. 7 after activists stepped out of a vehicle holding banners protesting the country’s strict prohibition of LGBT propaganda.

“Discrimination is incompatible with Olympic movement,” the banner read, in part. The arrest came just one day after four other activists were arrested for unfurling pink-triangle-shaped banners comparing the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany.

Even the most optimistic among us was doubtful that Russia could pull off a world-wide event without showcasing its dreadful record on human rights. And even though more than 6,000 athletes from 84 countries have competed in the snow-laden landscape of Sochi for a week now, Russia has done very little to hide its disdain for equality, especially concerning LGBTs.

The 2013 law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, bans the promotion of “non-traditional” sexual relations to anyone under 18-years-old. Specifically, he said, “gay propaganda.”

That means, no groups of LGBTs can assemble. No signs of gay pride—rainbow flags, pink triangles—are to be displayed, and the Russian government readily denied requests to create a Pride House—an LGBT and allied village at Olympic Games that gives LGBT athletes and their supporters a place to feel safe.

Despite the hard line against LGBTs, the opening ceremonies—complete with one malfunctioning Olympic ring—were welcoming, at least inside the massive Fisht Olympic Stadium.

“Our games will be yours,” said Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko. “Because when we come together in all our diversity, it is the Olympic Games that unite us.”

Internationsl Olympic Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach echoed the welcoming comments.

“The Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity,” he said. “Therefore I say to the political leaders of the world. … Please respect their Olympic message of goodwill, of tolerance, of excellence and of peace.”

Neither addressed the arrests just a few hours earlier.

But prior to the opening ceremonies, United Nations officials condemned Russia for its laws.

“Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice,” said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “We must all raise our voices against attacks on LGBT or intersex people. We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”

Before the Games, Putin guaranteed that no one would be arrested based on his or her sexuality. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak backed that claim, but added that the new laws were in place to “protect children.”

“We are all grown up and every adult has his or her right to understand their sexual activity,” he said. “Please, do not touch kids. That’s the only thing. That’s prohibited by law in all countries, whether you are gay or straight.”

He, of course, did not explain how homosexuality or heterosexuality is linked to pedophilia, but the world continues to watch as the Games continue until closing ceremonies on Feb. 23, and we wonder who else will wind up in Russian prison.

We were interested to learn a little more about the history of the country, how certain corporations who traditionally support the Olympics have responded, and highlight a few of the out athletes who are brave enough to chase their Olympic dreams in a country that has made it difficult to simply focus on sport.

Everyone from individuals to corporations are forced to take a stance on these games—either buy continuing to support them, boycotting them or sharing a public statement on them.

AT&T, for example, condemned the country’s laws. Budweiser pulled away its support. Other corporations, like Coca Cola and McDonald’s, are still proud partners with the Games.

Google created a “doodle” in recognition of the games, that uses the Gay Pride rainbow.

Soon, the Sochi Olympics will be over. After Feb. 23, will Russia go back to how it was, or will these games serve as a step toward a more inclusive future in the country’s future?

All we can do is watch. And hope.

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