When I was a small child trying to understand the Holocaust, I asked my grandparents—the children of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe well before the Second World War—whether or not they knew at any point what awaited their kin overseas. “We heard things,” they said. “From time to time, we heard things.” The Sochi Winter Olympics are in full swing and I hear things every day. On Friday, I heard that Anastasia Smirnova, a gay rights activist I interviewed in August, was arrested in St. Petersburg for carrying a banner quoting the International Olympic Committee’s policy against discrimination. I heard that in Moscow, 10 people protesting Russia’s odious “gay propaganda” law were detained by police and allegedly beaten and threatened with sexual abuse. I heard that across the country, gay Russian men are lured off the Internet by neo-Nazi thugs, and tortured on camera. On Sunday, I heard from Kirill Maryin, an openly gay 17-year-old from Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-most populous city, who hopes to flee the country as soon as possible. “My life is getting worse,” he told me. “I see no end in sight.”
Since the Olympic Games began, I have also heard dozens of liberal-minded Canadians argue that, in the absence of the IOC’s vocal opposition to the horrors above, we can take comfort in the stellar athletic showing of our gay athletes. Many people repulsed by Russia’s treatment of its gay citizens are hoping LGBT athletes at Sochi will mirror black American runner Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin games, and defeat the team of their would-be oppressor in glorious, triumphant fashion. Athletic victory, in other words, should fill the moral abyss created by politicians, bureaucrats and, yes, athletes too afraid to stir Putin’s pot.
When Dutch bisexual speed skater Ireen Wüst (who has made it very clear that she does not think political statements belong in the Olympics) won the gold medal in her event on Sunday, Olympic spectators deemed the skater’s victory Sochi’s first official LGBT triumph over Russian President Vladimir Putin. Journalists and bloggers mocked the Putin administration’s supposed underestimation of gay people. But the joke, when you think about it, is on no one but us.
Victories won and gestures made by gay athletes during the Games are cathartic and, one hopes, inspiring for gays on the ground in Russia. They may make foreigners feel better about watching an otherwise morally farcical spectacle. But they are in no way evidence of political restitution.
After all, Putin, who is known to sing the praises of gay Russian giants Nijinsky and Tchaikovsky—and who embraced and congratulated Wüst on her gold medal victory this weekend—clearly does not doubt the physical prowess, creativity and intelligence of gay people. He will not, upon witnessing the incredible finesse of gay figure skaters and hockey players, throw up his arms in defeat and declare, “How could I have been so small-minded! Those gays can really skate. Equality for all!” Our skills do not save us—nor do they prove anything in the face of fascism. In fact, they don’t even help us on more familiar, friendlier Western territory.
Consider this scene from the otherwise sympathetic documentary Mitt, which follows the failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his family through eight years of rigorous campaigning: Near the end of the film, before Romney’s final debate, we see his staunchly socially conservative clan sit down at the kitchen table in their hotel suite, and gather around an iPhone broadcasting a This American Life podcast, in which gay American humour writer David Sedaris reads from his book When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Mitt Romney, at rest in the bosom of his family, laughs out loud as Sedaris describes what it’s like to wear a leg catheter to a baseball game. David Sedaris? Insightful, delightful, hilarious. Not even Mitt, nor, I’d wager, Vladimir Putin, could deny it. Both however, would gladly deny the writer his civil rights.
When the Olympic Games close next week, let’s not forget that Putin equates homosexuality with pedophilia. Let’s not forget that Russian legislators are currently debating a bill, likely to pass, that would remove children from the homes of homosexual parents. Let’s not forget that the country’s nationalist brutes who routinely entrap gays, beat them to a pulp and pour urine over their faces, genuinely believe they are ridding Mother Russia of a predatory pest. In Germany, the Jews were rats, in Rwanda, the Tutsis were cockroaches, and in Russia, the gays are pedophiles, unworthy of basic human rights—even the ones who can skate. Something my grandparents did hear from their ill-fated relations halfway across the world—concert violinists, brilliant mathematicians and champion athletes included? Talent is no match for prejudice.