What does one do about the Sochi Games?
by Rick Pollard
Russian President Vladimir Putin must have hoped the Olympics would showcase a dynamic modern Russia. Instead, thanks to his government’s passage of a law restricting LGBT Russians’ freedom of expression, Sochi 2014 has become synonymous with attacks on human rights.
Not surprisingly, gay icons like Lady Gaga, Cher and George Takei have spoken out. But people like Sidney Crosby, the captain of Canada’s Olympic hockey team, have been critical as well: “I think that everyone has an equal right to play and I think we’ve been supportive of that,” he said in an interview last summer. “With the Olympics and the controversy around that, I think those decisions and those laws aren’t necessarily something that I agree with personally.”
OK, so it’s not a stirring call for gay rights. But the sentiment is there.
World leaders are staying away from the Games in droves, including the presidents and prime ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the United States.
Even Stephen Harper has opted not to attend, although a huge chunk of the Conservative base probably likes the homophobic cut of Putin’s jib right now.
The condemnation has not been universal, of course. The usual homophobic lunatics have proclaimed their support for the Russian law, citing the need to, as the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute stated, “protect children from homosexual propaganda.”
As ever, haters only have to claim to be protecting children to peddle their particular brand of bile and ignorance. But such people are now, thankfully, in the minority.
For all the moral indignation, however, calls for an outright boycott of the Games have largely gone unheeded. Sidney Crosby may not like the new law, but he’s still going. So are Regina’s own Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Kunitz, and the rest of their Team Canada teammates.
Human rights are all well and good, but Olympic medals matter more.
WHAT’S IN A BOYCOTT, ANYWAY?
That’s good, say some. After all, the athletes aren’t there to play politics or make speeches; they’re there to compete and many have been training for this moment their whole lives. Moreover, it’s wrong to impose our views on other countries.
The president of Switzerland explained it this way in defending his decision to attend: “Well, we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere anymore, right? Not to any Islamic country, because we have other legal concepts, and not to the United States because of the death penalty.”
That’s bad, say others. The athletes and athletic supporters (yes, I went there) are being used as window dressing for a corrupt and dictatorial regime. Participation in the Olympics, even if some people speak out, will do nothing to make life easier for LGBT Russians.
Boycotting, they say, doesn’t mean we’re imposing our values on others; we’re simply showing the courage of our convictions.
So what’s all the fuss about? What does this law actually say?
Last June, the Russia Duma passed a law banning the “propagandization of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.”
Fines for individuals, both Russians and foreign visitors, range from US$120-$150. The fines for NGOs and corporations range from $24,000 to $30,000 dollars.
Foreigners can also be imprisoned and deported for violating the law. Penalties are 10 to 20 times higher if you “propagandize” through the media or the Internet.
The law defines “propaganda” as “the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creation of non-traditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes non-traditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in non-traditional sexual relations.”
Translating Russian legalese into English legalese is hardly a recipe for clarity, but at least it’s a definition. There is, however, no definition of “non-traditional sexual relations.”
You may wonder: What the hell do Russian lawmakers mean by ”non-traditional sexual relations”? Are they harkening back to a time when men couldn’t be prosecuted for raping their wives? Will it now be against the law to advocate interracial marriage, something that was banned in many places not so long ago? Will it be illegal to say that two consenting adults can have sex for fun, not just procreation, or that the missionary position is just one option among many?
It’s easy to mock when confronted with such absurdity. But the recent history of Russia makes it all too clear that LGBT people are the law’s intended target.
In recent years, gay pride parades and rallies in numerous cities have been banned. Gay rights organizations have been classified as “foreign agents” and fined. Before the new federal law was put in place, similar laws were already on the books in a number of regions, including Sochi.
It seems ridiculous that the Russian government would classify a local gay rights organization as a “foreign agent” but many Russian lawmakers want to encourage the notion that queer people are foreign, alien, the other. Recently, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told the BBC that his city is some kind of hetero Stepford: “It’s not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live. We do not have them in our city.”
Maybe someone should invite the Mayor to one of Sochi’s two gay bars.
Pahkomov did say that gay people would be welcome at the Games. “Our hospitality will be extended to everyone who respects the laws of the Russian Federation and doesn’t impose their habits on others.”
President Vladimir Putin has made similar statements that gays are welcome, provided they don’t go on some sort of homosexual recruiting drive. But he did so while equating homosexuality with pedophilia. He said recently, “One can feel relaxed and at ease, but please leave the children in peace.”
How comforting. Putin thinks gay people are all pedophiles but he wants them to feel “at ease”.
Gosh. What would he say if he we were trying to make people uneasy?
SPEAK UP, DON’T WALK OUT
Russian LGBT organizations have called on athletes and spectators not to boycott the Games, but instead to boycott homophobia. In August 2013, the Russian LGBT Network wrote: “Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent.”
“ We call for organizations and individuals who are attending the Games to exercise freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and to not fall accomplices to the homophobic policies by censoring their own beliefs, statements and identities.”
The Network noted the failure of past Olympic boycotts to foster change, including the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 “retaliation boycott” of the Los Angeles Games. They pointed, instead, to the example of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and their infamous “black power salute.”
On the victory podium, Smith and Carlos wore black gloves and raised their fists to show solidarity with people who were rallying against apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the United States. They also removed their shoes to protest poverty and wore beads to protest lynchings. Their call for justice echoes to this day.
“We need to listen directly to what Russian activists and those affected are saying,” agrees Leah Keiser of URPride. “Imposing our ideology on global locations will do little for everyone involved. It would be best to support the actions of those residing in the location with an understanding of the social climate, instead of initiating our own actions that might be out of context.”
Mona Hill of Amnesty Saskatchewan reports that Amnesty International has not called for a boycott. However, in a September statement, the international human rights organization was sharply critical of the International Olympic Committee.
“The IOC could have used its influence with the Russian authorities in the run-up to the Olympics to make sure that the Games are not tarnished by human rights abuses,” says Hill. “Sadly, they appear to be missing this opportunity.”
Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale, Canada’s largest LGBT organization, is also opposed to a boycott.
“I don’t think that is going to do the LGBT community in Russia any good — in fact, there may be more backlash if a boycott does occur,” she says. “The athletes who go can make a statement because they’re probably all well protected in their home countries.”
Kennedy said she would also like to see the IOC review its charter to explicitly include sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination and, in future, “to have them do their homework before they go to countries where being gay is criminal.”
WHY DOES SOCHI MATTER?
At times, it can seem daunting to take on an issue in a country far away, seemingly remote from our everyday experience.
Hill describes the challenge this way:
“Too many people do not believe their voice counts on a global scale and therefore will not take the time to speak out against human rights violations until they are directly affected in some way.”
Many members of the LGBT community argue that, instead of focusing on problems outside Canada that we can’t change, there is unfinished work here at home.
It’s legitimate to be concerned about the work that still needs to be done in Canada. Moreover, everyone deserves the chance to live our lives. Those of us who came out later in life had to work very hard to get to a point in our lives where we can be open and comfortable with who we are.
We have a right to enjoy life without constantly thinking about the political context of everything we do.
But queer people, and our allies, can’t afford to sit back either and believe that the plight of LGBT people in Russia has no bearing on us.