On the same weekend Torontonians took part in a glorious 2013 Pride parade, gays in Saint Petersburg were also marching — except their demonstration ended with beatings and arrests.
The group was protesting the unanimous passage of a new anti-gay law in Russia that bans “gay propaganda” in order to “protect minors.”
But anyone following news out of Russia can see it’s not minors who need protecting. Over the last month, a steady stream of anti-gay horror stories have filled my Facebook wall: Russian neo-Nazi sociopaths using the internet to lure gay youth so they can torture them, gangs of skinheads forcing gays to pose for humiliating pictures or drink urine. In May, a gay man died after thugs raped him with broken bottles and bashed in his head with a rock.
Russia denies gay and lesbian people their right to speak and love freely, their right to protest and their right to exist. Even showing a rainbow flag in public is a criminal offence.
There is no mistaking what is happening in Russia; the world has seen it before.
Russian lawmakers have made gay people scapegoats for some of the country’s problems — not unlike the way leaders in Nazi Germany blamed the Jews for Weimar Germany’s economic difficulties. (President Vladimir Putin has even blamed gays for Russia’s declining birthrate.)
Next year, Russia will become the centre of the world’s attention for more than two weeks when it plays host to the Winter Olympics. Russian gays and their international allies must take advantage of the Olympic spotlight and use every tactic to fight back against the country’s increasingly anti-gay culture. And if the perfect pageantry of the Games is tainted in the process, so be it.
There is a long history of politics merging with the Olympics. Organizers cancelled the Games altogether during the Second World War. When Moscow hosted in 1980, the United States, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada all boycotted. When Los Angeles hosted in 1984, the Soviet Union and 14 of its allies boycotted.
The Games have also been used as a propaganda tool. In 1936, Hitler opened the Berlin Games with a Nazi salute. For two weeks, the Olympics camouflaged his racist, militaristic dictatorship. The world was silent.
Two black Olympic champions used their golden moment in 1968 in Mexico City to hold their fists high in the air — a nod to the Black Panthers, who were fighting for civil rights.
Olympians going to Sochi from privileged, Western democracies have a responsibility to speak up, carry rainbow flags and talk about gay rights every chance they get. To say nothing is to be complicit in the hatred.
American figure skater Johnny Weir, whose husband is Russian, recently told CNN that he’s not a political leader and “just being there” as an openly gay man is enough. “For me to go and wave a rainbow flag goes against my own personal principles,” he said, adding, “I am not a propagandist.”
In Canada, straight Olympic athletes have spent the summer crisscrossing the country to march in various Pride parades — a first for the Canadian Olympic Committee. But the reality is that visibility is simply not enough. It’s not enough to go to Sochi and compete as if everything is normal. It’s not enough just to wear a little rainbow pin on a lapel, and it’s insulting for athletes (gay or straight) to dismiss demands for further activism and claim that “the Olympics aren’t political.”
At the very least, the International Olympic Committee should encourage gay-friendly countries like Canada to host Pride Houses in Sochi. It should also urge athletes to carry rainbow flags at the opening ceremonies alongside their national flags, Putin’s laws be damned.
The IOC barred South Africa from 1964 to 1991 because of its apartheid policies, yet it won’t weigh in now. Former NBA player John Amaechi told the National Post’s Bruce Arthur that the IOC refuses to stand up for human rights. “They have no backbone. Look, [South Africa] was perhaps the only notable, noble thing that the IOC has ever done. It’s the only outspoken, outstanding, political move that made them, for just a brief moment, worth their existence … They’re explicitly saying that [not] being racist is important, we won’t allow it, but being homophobic is okay.”
Vodka boycotts should be only the first step to get people talking. We have their attention — let’s use it to make demands. All organizations and individuals attending the Olympic Games must exercise their freedom of expression and stand with Russian LGBT activists demonstrating in Sochi. Corporate sponsors also need to start raising hell about the fact that their brands are being used to support bigotry.
Berlin 1936 is now known as “the Nazi Olympics.” Let’s not let this moment pass us by. Sochi 2014 should be remembered as the “Gay Rights Games.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird finally let loose with harsh words for Russia on Aug 1. Canadian leaders should follow his example next month at the G20 summit in Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg.
Staying politically neutral is no longer an option.