Since last June, when the Russian government banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” much talk of the Sochi Olympic games has been concerned with the topic of LGBTQ rights in Russia.

Homosexual sex between consenting adults in private has been legal in Russia for over 20 years, but there are no laws protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. Being gay is not a crime, but the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors is.

Since the new laws have been passed, LGBTQ groups in Russia have reported an increase in violent and targeted homophobic attacks. Perpetrators have been known to use social media to lure unsuspecting LGBTQ people out in order to physically abuse, torture, and humiliate them.

“There are many places where sexual minorities are under constant threat, and a few places, like Russia, where things are getting worse,” said David Rayside, professor of political science and sexual diversity studies at U of T. There is a vocal Orthodox Church in Russia pressuring to return to Soviet-era laws and re-criminalize same-sex sexual activity.

The laws are quite vague. It is unclear what amounts to propaganda or the promotion of LGBTQ values. There is speculation as to whether waving a rainbow flag or donning a rainbow pin could be as incriminating as publicly kissing a member of the same sex. Pride parades, being loud and proud by their very nature, are technically also illegal; they are explicitly illegal in the Russian capital of Moscow, where pride parades have been banned for the next one hundred years.

“I do not believe that the games should ever have been awarded to Russia,” said Caroline Fusco, U of T professor from the department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “It does not appear that the [International Olympic Committee] historically has considered human rights violations as much as it should because time and time again the games are awarded to countries with a history of human rights abuses.”

In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the propaganda laws last June, many in the international gay community began to call for an all-out boycott of the Sochi Olympics. There were also movements to boycott Russian products; dozens of bars and restaurants in Canada have since banned Russian vodka, for example. Many argued, however, that boycotts are unrealistic, difficult to pull off, and end up hurting the athletes more than anyone.

“Boycotting the games can potentially cause a backlash among athletes and, unless done en masse is unlikely to be very effective,” said Juan Pereira Marsiaj, professor of politics and sexual diversity at U of T.

Other critics of the boycott strategy argued that the Olympics ought to be about sports; politics are not the purpose of the Olympics, they said. Johnny Weir, a former American Olympic athlete and openly gay man, stated controversially, "I see the Olympics strictly as a sporting event and not a political event."

Fusco disagrees. “These mega-sports events are inherently political and they are driven by politics and economics, from the bid process, through to the awarding of games, and finally to the staging of the games.”

Bruce Kidd, former Olympic athlete, expert on the topic of human rights and Olympism, the Warden of Hart House, and a professor in the department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, stressed that in certain cases boycotts can be useful and necessary. He called on Canadian athletes to boycott the Commonwealth games in 1986, due to the hosting British government’s support of apartheid in South Africa.

But, Kidd said, “In Sochi's case, I am not in favour of a boycott because I think that there are many other avenues for change to pursue at this point—in fact, they are actively being pursued.”  

One of those avenues is a push for the IOC to add a protection based on sexual orientation to their charter. Principle Six of the Charter’s Fundamental Principles of Olympism states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Sexual orientation is absent, but several activist groups have emphasized that the word “otherwise” is up for interpretation.

In terms of LGBTQ protesting within the Olympic games itself, there are two major obstacles: first, in Russia, as per the anti-gay laws, it is illegal to promote homosexuality and thus illegal to politically advocate on behalf of LBTQ people. Second, as per the IOC charter, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

The IOC has publicly clarified this in light of Russia’s anti-gay laws by stating that “by its nature, the Olympic games cannot become a platform for any kind of demonstration and the IOC will not accept any proactive gesture that could harm their spirit and jeopardize their future.”

To sidestep these obstacles, the Principle 6 Campaign, named after the sixth principle of the IOC charter, uses the language of the charter to provide a way of speaking about LGBTQ issues in a way that doesn’t come into conflict with Russian anti-gay laws or the Olympic ban on political activism. The P6 Campaign is partnered with American Apparel and AllOut. It is mostly an awareness campaign, with t-shirts, a petition, and a YouTube video with over 1.2 million views.

Caitlin Taguibao
Caitlin Taguibao

The United States sent a pro-LGBTQ message in late December by announcing that its official Olympic delegation will contain numerous gay athletes, but would not include President Obama.

Rayside and Pereira Marsiaj, two of the politics and sexual diversity studies profs at U of T, argue that symbolic forms of activism, such as simply being present as gay athletes or donning a rainbow flag pin are the most practical and most likely LGBTQ protest strategies to be used at Sochi.

“Making a statement at the Olympics, particularly if it is coming from a delegation rather than an individual athlete would help in pointing a finger at Putin. This could be done with flags, pins, or statements at press conferences during the games. Around the games themselves, we are probably limited to these more symbolic moves,” said Pereira Marsiaj.

“There should be some part of the Canadian delegation, or the broader activist agenda, able to react quickly to events as they unfold,” said Rayside.

Pride Houses are also an interesting, and originally Canadian, addition to the international LGBTQ protest landscape. The first Pride House appeared in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and, since, has grown into a movement and a way of uniting and organizing LGBTQ athletes at major sports gatherings.

A Pride House is a safe and welcome place for LGBTQ people, athletes and allies, to come together during sporting events. They are spaces to learn about LGBTQ people and homophobia in sport, and to build relations with the mainstream athletic community.

Although a Pride House at Sochi is prohibited, various “satellite” Pride Houses will come together across the globe over the course of the Sochi Olympics. Many of the world's urban centers and former Olympic host cities will play a part, standing in support of LGBTQ athletes.

The delegation from Vancouver will contain Tim Stevenson, an openly gay councillor. He hopes to pressure the IOC to make it a requirement for all Olympic host cities to facilitate a Pride House, so that this present case at Sochi never again repeats itself. Stevenson will also work with countless other groups and delegations to pressure the IOC to explicitly condemn discrimination based on sexual orientation, and to officially include it in the charter.

Stevenson argues that since the Paralympic Charter does include sexual orientation, then it should not be a huge leap to get the IOC on the same page.

It is currently unclear what exactly will transpire with regards to LGBTQ activism and protest, but the more pressing question is what impact any of this might ultimately have on the well being of LGBTQ people in Russia.

“Once the games are done, and the media stops talking about Russia, what will happen to those gays, lesbians and trans that might have spoken out during the games? What will happen once the window of opportunity opened by the games closes?” asks Pereira Marsiaj.

It is also important to consider the Russian context within which both these Olympic games and these anti-gay laws take place.

“Violations against LGBTQ people do not happen in a vacuum but are often part of a broader assault on human (and animal and environmental) dignity,” said Fusco.

“[These] problems around LGBT rights are embedded in much larger problems related to the erosion of democratic rule in Russia under Putin,” said Pereira Marsiaj.

At this point it has become clear that Russia is hosting the most expensive games in history amid international outcry. There will be no boycott, but despite the wishes of the IOC and Russian government, there will certainly be some political activity.

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