Gayfolk in Washington, D.C., gathered at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) on Friday night [Feb. 7] for the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics not just to view the pageantry but also to show solidarity with Russia’s beleaguered LGBT community.
“Our colleagues in Russia cannot do this,” Ty Cobb, HRC’s director of global engagement, told the crowd as NBC’s delayed broadcast of the ceremony was about to begin. Cobb relayed the news that Russian authorities had arrested more than a dozen gay rights protesters in St. Petersburg and Moscow on the very day that Russia was set to bask in the global spotlight.
“My only crime was to hold a sign supporting the principle of non-discrimination,” Anastasia Smirnova, one of the four LGBT activists arrested in St. Petersburg, said in an e-mail read by Cobb. “Thank you for standing with us shoulder to shoulder,” she concluded.
In Moscow, 10 LGBT activists were arrested after a demonstration that included the singing of the Russian national anthem in Red Square, according to an account that one of them, Elena Kostynchenko, gave to a reporter for the Washington Blade. Kostynchenko claimed in the telephone interview with reporter Michael K. Lavers that one of those in the group was beaten, another choked, and another sexually harassed. The allegations could not be verified; all of those arrested appear to have been released after short detentions.
The demonstrations represented a distracting focus for Russia’s strongman president Vladimir Putin as he presided over what he had hoped would be a crowning achievement of his long rule at the Kremlin. Putin invited the international opprobrium the earlier summer by signing a series of anti-gay laws, including one that made it a crime to direct “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” at minors.
The international gay rights community began publicizing the law soon after Putin signed the measure on July 1. As the campaign continued, Putin and other Russian authorities repeatedly sought to minimize the law’s impact. They depicted the law merely as protection for Russia’s youth from corrupting influence and insistently denied any wider discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Some gay rights advocates went so far as to urge the United States to boycott the games, but President Obama shot the idea down. A boycott would be unfair to the athletes who had worked so hard to qualify, Obama said in news conference in August. “One of the things I am looking forward to,” he added, “is maybe some gay or lesbian athletes bringing home the gold, silver or bronze.”
Gay rights advocates kept at the issue, raising concerns whether LGBT athletes themselves could be arrested if, for example, they waved rainbow flags during the games or spoke out in favor of gay rights. As the games drew closer, Putin again tried to allay the concerns. Gay and lesbian visitors could be “relaxed and calm” while in Sochi, Putin said in remarks broadcast by Russian state news media in mid-January. “But, please, leave the children alone,” he added.
Putin also tried to redirect the spotlight by stating, incorrectly, that even though gay sex is legal within Russia, it continues to be criminal within the United States. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003. Still, in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Jan. 31, Yale law professors Ian Ayres and William Eskridge suggested Putin might have at least half a point. They likened Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law with so-called “no homo” laws on the books in eight states that prohibit promoting or advocating homosexuality. Among those states: Utah, host to the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The controversy over the Russian law was a distraction not just for Putin but also for the International Olympic Committee, which insists on viewing the games as above either politics or nationalism. IOC officials simultaneously reaffirmed support for Principle 6, which prohibits discrimination in the games, while warning that athletes were not to engage in political demonstrations while participating.
For the opening ceremonies, athletes appeared to abide by the admonition, except for the Greek team, who wore gloves with rainbow-colored finger tips. But IOC President Thomas Bach gave the nondiscrimination principle a shout-out in his remarks at the opening ceremonies. In a passage addressed to the athletes, Bach declared: “Yes, it is possible even as competitors to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”
Gay rights advocates tweaked NBC afterward for cutting that paragraph from its broadcast; some of Bach’s other remarks against discrimination, however, were included. During the ceremony itself, some gays could not resist noting that the Russian composer Tchaikovsky whose Swan Lake brought the paean to Mother Russia to a close was himself gay.
Americans know full well that sports, however apolitical, can be a vehicle for advancing tolerance. Witness the importance of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball and the pleas by LGBT advocates today for gay college and professional athletes to come out. In an ironic twist, Russia has helped ensure that the 2014 Winter Olympics will be remembered not just for the games but also for the nondiscrimination principle that the host country itself fails to follow.