Seeking solidarity with Russian gays

Brian Hodder
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Last year, I wrote a column concerning Russia's anti-gay law and how this might have an impact on athletes and visitors planning to attend the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014.

At the time, President Vladamir Putin assured Olympic authorities that this law would have no impact on anyone visiting the games, including gay athletes.

Various countries who were opposed to the law considered how they were going to express their opposition.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sent out a notice to all nations that the games are not a place to express political opinions and that any athlete who wore a symbol that represented anything like this would be censured.

With the start of the games less than a week away it is a good time to revisit this issue and see whether any of the controversy was warranted.

With the law having been in effect for several months now, there have been clear indications that it is having a negative impact on gays and lesbians in Russia.

Rights activists in the country report a noted upswing in harassment and abuse against members of the gay community since this law came into effect.

The mayor of Sochi claimed in an interview with western journalists that "We do not have them in our town," when asked about gay citizens of his city.

This, despite the fact that there are at least two gay clubs in the city.

Despite this ridiculous claim, he also asserted that gays are welcome in his city for the games as long as they do not "impose their habits on others."

Putin tried to clarify this issue with reporters a couple of weeks ago and his statements signal dire consequences for gays and lesbians living in Russia.

While iterating the safety for gay athletes and visitors to the games, he defended the anti-gay law as being aimed at banning propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia, thus suggesting that gays are more likely to abuse children.

In an even more bizarre but disturbing rationale behind the bill, he said Russia needs to "cleanse" itself of homosexuality if it wants to increase its birth rate.

Considering the history in this part of the world, where brutal programs of ethnic cleansing have taken place, his choice of words is chilling and the implications totally terrifying for any gay Russian.

It should come as no surprise that harassment of gays in Russia is increasing and, once the international spotlight is off Russia after the games end, this process is likely to accelerate.

No boycotts

Western countries have expressed their unhappiness with the law, but none have chosen to boycott the games over the issue.

In Canada, our foreign minister expressed his disapproval of the law and, starting today, Vancouver Deputy Mayor Tim Stevenson, who is openly gay, will travel to Sochi representing a former host city to lobby the IOC to change its charter to explicitly include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination clause; Stevenson's initiative was unanimously endorsed by Vancouver city council.

The Americans have chosen to protest by including several openly gay former athletes, including Billie Jean King, among its group of officials it is sending with its team of athletes, and they have been very public about their deliberate choice to do so.

In three weeks’ time, the games will be over and, sadly, world attention around this issue is likely to fade away.

I hope that several of the openly gay athletes who will be competing in these games win medals and are able to show pride in their achievements.

I do not believe sexual orientation matters at all to the athletes, as they all are striving to do their best and to represent their countries.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of this law will continue to affect gay Russians long after the glow of the Olympics fades.

While the rest of us can return to our normal routines, I fear that life for gays and lesbians in Russia will not be normal for a long, long time.

Brian Hodder is a past-chairman of Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians for Equality.

Organizations: International Olympic Committee (IOC), Newfoundland Gays

Geographic location: Russia, Sochi, Vancouver Russia.While Canada

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