With global spotlight on Sochi, human rights activists look for openings to challenge Russian law

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 6, 2014 

— With the world’s focus turned to Sochi, Russia, for Friday night’s Opening Ceremony and the Olympic competitions to come, human rights activists hope to keep attention on the host country’s law prohibiting so-called gay propaganda. They’re facing a challenge.

Will there be a political statement like the Black Power salutes by Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games? With rainbow flags be unfurled at strategic moments?

Athletes are being asked their views and activists are planning ways to get attention, and yet Russians — some of them — are wondering what the fuss is all about.

Svetlana Rajaetskaya, owner of a women’s clothing store in Sochi, said in a recent interview she’s “indifferent” to the law. She said there’s a gay population and a couple of gay clubs in Sochi, countering assertions that Sochi’s mayor made on BBC that there aren’t any gay people in his town.

“They are very accepting,” Rajaetskaya said of Sochi residents’ attitudes toward LGBT people. “If a gay person passes them in the street, they are very accepting.”

But despite the media attention on the law, few athletes in Olympic Park appear to be very concerned about its impact — though they also aren’t endorsing Russia’s approach.

“There shouldn’t be any problems with it, if you’re gay or not,” said Tomas Marcinko, an ice hockey player for Slovakia. “These games should connect all people, no matter who you are.”

In interviews prior to the opening of the Winter Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the LGBT community has nothing to fear from the anti-propaganda law.

“There’s no danger for individuals of this non-traditional sexual orientation who are planning to come to the games as visitors or participants,” Putin told the BBC last month.

“If you want my personal attitude, I would tell you that I don’t care about a person’s sexual orientation,” Putin said.

That was reiterated Thursday by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, who told reporters in Sochi on Thursday that the country does not "differentiate between people depending on their religion or their sexual orientation." Kozak added: "We are all grownups, and any adult has his or her right to understand their sexual activity. Please do not touch kids. That’s the only thing.”

Many Russians interviewed on the streets of Sochi and nearby Adler last week said they weren’t familiar with the anti-propaganda law and its potential impact.

Alexander Galdenko, 25, who works at a movie house on the Black Sea waterfront promenade in Sochi, and he’s devoutly religious and considers homosexuality a sin. Though unfamiliar with the details of the anti-propaganda law, Alexander said there shouldn’t be laws that specifically target gay individuals.

“If you see guys walking hand-in-hand on the street, I would do nothing,” Galdenko said. “What can you do? No, there should not be a law that oppresses anybody. It’s life.”

Rajaetskaya said she agrees with Putin that the law is nothing to fear. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid with this,” she said. “It’s harmless.”

Former Russian Olympian Svetlana Zhurova, a speed skater and the ceremonial “mayor” of one of the athletes’ villages, said this week it doesn’t make sense for anyone to protest over gay rights at the games.

"We are all participants of the Games and we are going to applaud the straight people and the homosexuals just like the previous Olympic Games."

But LGBT activists disagree. Human Rights First, an organization based in New York, has gathered anecdotes of LGBT Russians being attacked and persecuted on an increasing basis in the past year.

Human Rights First plans to send its own delegation to the Olympics, hoping to use spectator passes to distribute information about the law and the chapter in the Olympic charter, called Principle 6, that prohibits discrimination.

“We think it’s really important that human rights do not get lost in the Olympics,” said Shawn Gaylord, Human Rights First’s advocacy counsel.

Some athletes have spoken out against the law. Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, who is openly gay, told the BBC recently that she won’t be waving any rainbow flags, but that she might raise six fingers – after Principle 6 – to show solidarity with the LGBT community. Some American athletes, notably figure skater Amanda Wagner and skier Bode Miller, have voiced criticism.

But little else has been said publicly by athletes.

“It’s unfortunate that in that position, if you do take a stand, everyone’s going to jump on it,” said David Pichler, an openly gay American diver and former team captain who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. “The media’s going to jump on it. It could alter your performance, or you could face action from the Russian government.”

Thursday, competitors in Sochi seemed to shrug at the controversy.

“We don’t care so much about this. To be gay or lesbian is fine with me,” said Wolf Hannes, an Austrian speedskating coach. “We know they don’t want it here, or to talk about it on the podium here. We know it’s another country. When you go to another country, you have to adapt to them at least.”

Even in the United States, where much has been made of Russia’s law even as same-sex marriage is seeing a stunning new wave of popular support in the past year, the human rights concerns in Russia pale next to the public’s worries about security. A recent Pew poll found that 44 percent of Americans think Russia should not hold the Olympics. But when asked why, only 4 percent cite the treatment of gays and lesbians as their top reason — about the same number who cite political unrest, the fact that Russia’s president is Vladimir Putin and a general dislike of Russia. Many more respondents — 62 percent — say they worry most about security.

Still, governments and outsiders are finding ways to let their views be known. President Barack Obama, while dismissing calls for a boycott, appointed three gay former Olympians to the official U.S. delegation. (One of them, tennis great Billie Jean King, has had to back out to care for her ailing mother.) Other members of the delegation have been outspoken in favor of gay rights.

Just this week, a diversity organization in Canada aired an advertisement showing two men lunging back and forth on a luge with the tag line, “The Olympics have always been a little bit gay. Let’s keep them that way.”

This week, IOC President Thomas Bach said in Sochi he’s confident that Russia will adhere to the Olympic charter, which forbids discrimination. Other than that, he said, the committee cannot dictate to Russia what to do.

“We have done what we have to do and that means to ensure the application of the Olympic charter in the Olympic Games,” Bach told reporters in Sochi. “I cannot impose any stop of discussions about these kinds of issues. Everybody is free.”

And back in the United States, Cindy Gillespie, a former U.S. Olympic Committee member, pointed out that human rights concerns have dogged U.S.-run games as well. In 1996, for example, Cobb County, Ga., passed a statute just before the Atlanta Summer Games that essentially told gays and lesbians they weren’t welcome, she recalled.

“It created a huge furor,” Gillespie said. A venue was moved out of the county, and anti-gay activists — including members of Congress — threatened in response to snuff the Olympic torch flame as it moved across America toward Atlanta.

At the same time, U.S. law forbids HIV-positive visitors from coming into the country. “We certainly were not going to ask every athlete whether they were HIV positive,” Gillespie said. Instead, the IOC basically ignored U.S. law on the matter, and the United States applied a blanket waiver to Olympic competitors.

Gillespie expects the same courtesy is being extended by Russia during these games.

But activists fear for Russia’s LGBT community once the Olympics and the Paraolympics in March are over.

Gaylord, of Human Rights First, said there is talk of introducing amendments in Russia’s parliament that would take out specific references to LGBT residents. At the same time, he said, activists fear introduction of a so-called “family law,” which could use a parent’s status as LGBT as a factor in removing children from families.

“It may well be that during the Olympics we don’t see enforcement of the law or high-profile arrests,” Gaylord said. “We need to see whether a crackdown comes after the Olympics.”

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