Sochi Feels the Effects of Russia’s Gay “Propaganda” Ban

Jul 11, 2013 at 3:40 PM ET

Memo to Russian President Vladimir Putin: When your country hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, some of the athletes will be gay. Some might even be really gay.

Last week Putin signed into law a bill criminalizing “gay propaganda,” meaning people in Russia can be arrested or fined up to 200,000 rubles, or $6,700, for attending gay pride rallies or talking about homosexuality to anyone under 18. The effect was immediate, as Russian news sites started posting disclaimers at the top of articles about gay rights issues, warning that content may not be suitable for readers under 18.

So what happens to gay athletes traveling to Sochi? Well, foreigners can reportedly be charged and face deportation and arrest for as many as 15 days. Even before Putin signed the bill into law, Russian authorities detained dozens of people in late June for attending a pride parade in St. Petersburg.

It’s not just the new law that signifies Russia’s openly hostile attitude to LGBT individuals. Russia has been cracking down on LGBT organizations for the past several months, basically using the law to shut them down. International gay rights organization All Out has been documenting and fighting these developments, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures to help their campaigns.

The Ministry of Justice has also refused to approve permits for a Pride House in Sochi, a popular cultural center during the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London games for gay athletes and supporters. A judge upheld the ban, ruling that a Pride House would incite “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society and the state [and] provoke social-religious hatred.”

Judge Svetlana Mordovina also said “it can undermine the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation due to the decrease of Russia’s population.” You know, because gay athletes going to art galleries and hanging out might brainwash all of Mother Russia into exclusively having gay sex and thus ending procreation as we know it in the world’s largest country.

Even before the law became official, some gay athletes warned their counterparts to be careful while competing in Sochi. Johnny Weir, a self-proclaimed “Russophile” who has no shortage of Russian fans due to his marriage (thanks New York) to Russian-American Victor Voronov, offered his advice in February: “Watch what you do when you leave the Village, don’t be aggressive, don’t wear a big rainbow flag fur coat. If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.” (Weir didn’t return my calls for comment, but I still think he’s a delight).

Other gay athletes have a different view about going to Sochi. Blake Skjellerup, a New Zealand speed skating hopeful who competed in Vancouver in 2010, said if he goes to Russia next year, he won’t “tone down or change” who he is for anyone. “If that gets me in trouble, then I guess so be it,” he said.

The Federation of Gay Games (F.G.G.), a series of athletic events held every four years to promote respect for LGBT athletes, has signed a letter of protest regarding the Sochi Olympics, and several organizations have joined, according to Kelly Stevens, a F.G.G. representative. And a variety of gay and human rights activists have decided to boycott Sochi.

Thus far, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems conflicted about the boycott. The group openly supports LGBT athletes, but it’s proceeding with caution in Russia. Sources who worked at the 2012 London games told me that the screening process to work at the Olympics takes discrimination very seriously. One applicant’s joke about working with transgendered people brought on a barrage of intense questioning to make sure he wasn’t transphobic (yes, that’s a word).

In June, IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell told us it was “too early to comment” because the bill wasn’t yet law. But after Putin signed it, Mitchell then said “the IOC does not comment on national legislation– unless it directly affects sport in general and the Olympic Games in particular.”

But the law does just that, and when I pointed this out, he simply didn’t respond. In his emails, IOC spokesman Mitchell did say: “The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle.”

Of course, Russia’s new laws definitely jeopardizes that principle, and not only for gays. It’s now illegal for a straight spectator to tell her under 18-year-old child or sibling that Skjellerup and Weir are homosexual.

“We couldn’t even imagine a year ago that things would get this bad,” said Igor Iasine, a gay rights activist in Moscow. “This law in effect turns the LGBT community into second-class citizens.”

With pictures like this you’d think that Putin would be more LGBT friendly. Go figure.


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