Rainbows over the Sochi Olympics

A boycott won’t sway Putin, but that doesn’t mean we should hide our pride

Grigory Dukor / Reuters

On Saturday, June 29, I attended Toronto’s Dyke March with my girlfriend and two of our close friends—a lesbian couple who would spend a good portion of the afternoon posing in pictures with Japanese tourists traveling southern Ontario. The tourists had seen Niagara Falls; now, they told us, they wanted to see the gays. And see them they did. Thousands of people walked in the march that day, and over a hundred thousand in the Pride parade the next: police officers, politicians, religious figures and my older, heavily bearded, heterosexual brother, whose eagerness to pin every single lesbian-pride button onto his T-shirt was at once touching and kind of weird. The only opposition we faced wasn’t really opposition at all. A Muslim street preacher passed us a flyer that read like an anticlimactic fortune cookie: “Homosexuality, not convenient.”

That same weekend, while we were drinking rainbow-dyed beer and engaging in public displays of same-sex affection for the edification of tourists from Tokyo, activists at St. Petersburg’s fourth annual Pride parade in Russia were pelted with rocks, bottles and smoke bombs. Anti-gay protesters breached a police barrier and physically assaulted as many Pride supporters as they could. Activists bled onto their rainbow banners. The protesters were eventually detained and arrested, but so were their victims: citizens who had broken Russia’s new “anti-propaganda” law prohibiting public displays of anything gay—or, more specifically, “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” Russia’s parliament passed the law in June by a vote of 436 to 0, giving the country’s most vehement homophobes, some of whom are neo-Nazis, a fresh sense of validation.

Vigilante beatings and arrests of Russian gay activists have not been confined to St. Petersburg. Right-wing nationalists assaulted pro-gay activists in Moscow this summer, throwing excrement-filled condoms in their faces. Skinheads affiliated with the anti-gay, anti-immigrant group Format18 continue to use fake online personal ads to lure gay men into real-world meeting spots, where they beat and humiliate them on camera; favourite tactics include emptying plastic bottles filled with urine onto the gay men’s faces, and assaulting them with sex toys. In May, a 23-year-old gay man was beaten to death in Volgograd, just after coming out to his friends. Russian police say two men sexually assaulted him with a glass bottle and threw a “large stone” onto his head. In June, in a village on Russia’s eastern coast, a 39-year-old gay man was stabbed to death and set on fire. Homosexuality, not convenient? Try lethal.

Westerners are used to the fact that being openly gay is a criminal offence in many parts of Asia and Africa, but the recent crackdown on gay rights in eastern Europe has made us queasier than usual. The Sochi Winter Olympics are quickly approaching, which means that the civil liberties of Russia-bound athletes and visitors are in jeopardy, too. One of the new law’s co-authors, St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, has vowed to enforce the legislation during the Olympics. Precedent has been established. Russians caught violating the law face steep fines and possible jail time. As for foreigners, last month, four Dutch tourists were arrested for filming a documentary about LGBT rights in Murmansk. Many people doubt, however, that the Russian government will be so harsh during Sochi, when the whole world is watching. “Putin is pragmatic and has already realized that this international discussion is turning into a PR disaster for him,” says Yuri Leving, a professor of Russian studies at Dalhousie University. “There’s a lot of chest-puffing going on,” says Ivan Sorokin, a 27-year-old scientist and Moscow native. “They [the government] want to be seen as benevolent dictators, guardians of traditional morals—not people who arrest anyone and everyone.”

But the legal reality that Russian authorities can arrest anyone for something as minor as telling a gay teen “it gets better,” or for waving a rainbow flag in a public park, has been enough to motivate a major boycott. British actor Stephen Fry and American actor George Takei (both high-profile gay entertainers) have endorsed an anti-Sochi 2014 petition, which has garnered more than 165,000 signatures to date. The protesters would like to see Sochi stripped of its hosting privileges. Despite Milonov’s assertion that the law will be enforced during Sochi 2014, the International Olympic Committee (based on vague “assurances” from the Putin regime) is adamant that athletes will be safe during the Games. How safe is another story. If gay American figure skating contender Johnny Weir—who is opposed to a boycott—decides to make a pro-gay statement at the competition, will he arrested? These are the kinds of questions the IOC cannot answer. Still, U.S. President Barack Obama is against the boycott. So is Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, despite his stellar record on LGBT issues worldwide. More surprising, so are many pro-gay Russians themselves.

Anastasia Smirnova, general project manager of the Russian LGBT Network, says a boycott would only isolate gay Russians further. “The loss to the country could be blamed on the LGBT community,” she says, which might result in an increase in homophobic violence. She’d prefer athletes or administrators make a public gesture, similar to the Black Power salute American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos made at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, in protest of U.S. racism. Smirnova believes that “a small [pro-gay] statement in an interview, or a brief acknowledgement of equality in a press statement” would be far more powerful than a boycott. Canadian athletes have done just that, with Team Canada hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Shea Webber speaking out against the law. (“I think that everyone has an equal right to play,” Crosby told reporters on Sunday.)

Kirill, a 17-year-old Russian teen who is openly gay (he requested that I use his first name only) is convinced a boycott will accomplish nothing, because the government will do its best to censor the impetus behind it. “The main Russian TV channels are state propaganda,” he says, noting that, when France legalized gay marriage, most of what he saw on TV were polls—likely inflated—about how few Russians support homosexuality. Kirill lives in Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia, and has been bullied his entire life. “I’m scared every day,” he says. “In Russia, being gay is not human.” He says that, in the sixth grade, his biology teacher stood up for him indirectly, by explaining to his homophobic classmates that being gay is not abnormal. Were she to do that today, she would be arrested. Still, he does not support a boycott: “[It] won’t improve the situation for gays in Russia.”

Patrick Burke, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, and the co-founder of the LGBT sports organization You Can Play, agrees: “It’s not like Russia is going to stop arresting and beating gay people if there’s a boycott,” he says. Burke says protesters should pressure the IOC to include sexual orientation protections in their charter. Considering how little time remains until the Games begin, he says the best option would be to make an historic gesture. An anti-boycott op-ed he wrote for the American website BuzzFeed included many examples, including the simplest and most famous: In 1936, Jesse Owens, a black American, competed in the Summer Olympics in Berlin and won four gold medals—in the process, defeating several German stars, white Aryan members of what Adolf Hitler had recently declared to be the planet’s master race. There’s no doubt Owens’s story is a moving one. There are, however, some missing pieces. What Burke doesn’t mention in his piece is that Hitler refused to shake Owens’s hand at the medal ceremony following his victories. (The IOC gave the führer an option: Shake everyone’s hand, or shake no one’s. He chose the latter.) Burke also doesn’t mention exactly how Owens came to be in a position to win his last gold medal, the 4 x 100-m sprint relay. He ran in place of one of two Jewish sprinters who were benched by their own American coach, likely in an attempt to appease the anti-Semitic government of the host country. Jesse Owens, writes Burke, “took four gold medals from Hitler’s chosen Aryan race.” And Adolf Hitler would take the lives of six million Jews. Some gestures live a long time. History lives longer.

Athletic prowess did not convince the Third Reich that blacks and Jews—and gays—were human, too. Rainbows in Russia, on the Olympic podium, will not overturn Putin’s oppressive laws, nor will they make Kirill’s walk to school in Siberia any less harrowing. Nor, perhaps, will an official boycott. But there’s something insidious about the fact that some of our most forward-thinking leaders and activists are looking back—to 1968, to 1936—and taking comfort in the possibility of a silent gesture. Some say boycotting the Olympics is a political liability. But if Russia makes zero concessions on gay rights, if we actually allow its laws to prevent the construction of a Pride house in the Olympic Village, then we will have conveyed to Russia, and countries with equally odious anti-gay laws, that human rights can be bartered for good hockey. We will have done en masse what Jesse Owens’s coach did to two Jewish sprinters in Berlin in 1936. The year is 2013. Surely, we can do better.