MOSCOW — “A rainbow pin on your coat or hat could get you arrested,” says Polina Savchenko, a prominent Russian LGBT activist who warns against the display of anything related to gay pride at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Savchenko is one of several LGBT activists who say Russia’s repressive atmosphere has been emboldened by a recent onslaught of anti-gay laws that thousands of Olympic athletes, supporters, and fans will face when attending the Winter Olympics, and are urging a boycott of the games.
Activists point to an increasingly hostile stance on LGBT issues by both the powerful Russian Orthodox Church and the adversarial policies by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and say the International Olympic Committee — the governing body of the games — is not going far enough to ensure the protection of the LGBT Olympians.
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At issue is a bill that stigmatizes Russia’s LGBT community and bans the distribution of “homosexual propaganda.” The measure was approved by the Russian Parliament in a 436-0 vote earlier this month and is scheduled to pass through a final reading this week. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign it into law immediately.
The bill would make public events and dissemination of information about the LGBT community punishable by arrest and fines of up to $16,000. Similar laws already exist in St. Petersburg and nine other Russian Oblasts (regions).
The IOC says it has a “long commitment to non-discrimination against those taking part in the Olympic Games,” and that “all orientations will be welcome at the Games,” but activists say those ideals are not shared by the Russian community, and are urging a boycott of the Winter Games.
“LGBT people in Russia are scared, they live in fear, and we want people to be aware of this issue. If they feel strongly about human rights they should boycott the Olympics in Sochi,” said Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking LGBT organization based in New York.
“We really want the LGBT community to know it’s unsafe to travel there,” she said.
Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental human rights advocacy organization, stepped into the fray and demanded the IOC issue its own public statement and communicate directly with the Russian authorities about the government’s human rights and Olympic commitments.
Article continues below“We encourage you to obtain guarantees from the Russian authorities that no homophobic legislation will be adopted or implemented and that the authorities will refrain from any additional discriminatory legislative initiatives or policies that discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender people,” wrote Boris O. Dittrich, Advocacy Director for HRW’s LGBT Rights program, in a letter to the IOC.
“We also urge you to press the authorities to state publicly that, as Olympic Host, Russia will ensure, without distinction, the safety and the freedom of expression and association of all athletes, coaches, fans, and others who will attend the Sochi Games.”
In 2012, the Russian government said it would ban Olympic committee from having a “Pride House” for LGBT athletes, although similar Pride Houses were at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, and the 2012 summer games in London.
Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister-turned-Kremlin critic, said he does not foresee any changes in the official Russian attitude toward the LGBT community, but said he doubts that strict “enforcement” of the expected “homosexual Propaganda” law would occur at the Games in the face of almost certain outcry and denouncement by the international community.
Still, he cautioned, the Putin government likely will not tolerate any protests or displays of conduct that would violate Russian law, hinting that those would did so may find themselves being expelled as undesirable from the country.