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Winter Olympics set to be an international battleground for LGBT rights

Protesters outside the Russian Consulate in New York City demonstrate against Russian anti-gay legislation. Emmanuel Dunand~Getty Images

The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have become a political battleground over the host nation’s anti-gay laws and the threat that they might be enforced during the games, despite assurances to the International Olympic Committee.

The nation’s most recent law, signed in late June, imposes fines on individuals accused of spreading “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” It’s an intentionally ambiguous choice of words that effectively shuts down public displays by openly gay individuals. It would impose fines up to the equivalent of $3,000 USD, a maximum 15 days in prison, and deportation. Pride parades or rallies are out of the question, as demonstrated by recent clashes between gay rights advocates, anti-gay protesters and police.

Riot police guard gay rights activists who were beaten by anti-gay protesters during an authorized gay rights rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 29. Dmitry Lovetsky~AP Photo

The International Olympic Committee tried to alleviate tensions earlier this week, saying they “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Russia’s sports minister was quick to contradict them.

“No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable,” Mutko told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Few calls for an Olympic boycott

Despite calls in the New York Times op-ed page for a boycott, advocates and athletes see this as an opportunity to turn the Olympics into a flashpoint for LGBT rights in Russia. Nikolai Alexyev, leader of the Moscow LGBT movement, called for a Pride march in Sochi to coincide with the opening day of the games.

“[The march] will take place regardless of the decision of the authorities, and we are ready to challenge in the courts of any illegal solutions,” Alexyev declared.

CBS News had an excellent interview with a gay Olympic hopeful who has pledged to wear a rainbow pin, and the Russian LGBT Network posted this to Facebook earlier this week –

We believe that calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies, and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity and taking a firm stance against the disgraceful human rights record in this country.

Activists have found other ways to protest. A movement spearheaded by It Gets Better Project creator Dan Savage to boycott Russian vodka has gained steam. Chicago’s Sidetrack bar was one of the first bars in the nation to dump Stoli vodka, but the movement has since spread across the country.

A sign outside of The Call, a gay bar on Chicago’s north side. Scott Eisen~AP Photo

Activists took to the streets of New York City on Wednesday to protest outside the Russian Consulate, pouring bottles of Stoli vodka into sewer drains. “We can’t go there and protest in the middle of Russia. […] Unfortunately, this is the best chance we have. We’ve learned over many many years that corporate America, if they hurt financially, they pay attention,” one protester told AFP.

Chicago has also been subjected to calls to action over its sister city relationship with Moscow.

“We believe that it cannot be business as usual in Illinois’ relations with Russia until that country’s oppressive laws are reversed and gays are not targeted for oppression,” Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said. “From many small but meaningful steps, a national and then an international consensus will grow and ultimately, we believe, force Russia to change its behavior toward its gay citizens and visitors.”

An international opportunity

As draconian as Russia’s anti-LGBT laws are, the Winter Olympics provide a unique opportunity for direct international attention. 20 nations representing one billion people – 1/7 of the Earth’s population – recognize same-sex marriage. 94 members of the United Nations have signed an LGBT rights Declaration or sponsored the 2011 LGBT rights resolution.

A resort town on the Black Sea has been suddenly thrust to the forefront of the international LGBT community. No matter the end result in Sochi – on or off the field – what happens there will play a pivotal role in the future of Russia’s LGBT community.