In a little noticed development, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow last month selected one of the leaders of a Russian LGBT sports group to participate in a sports exchange program in the U.S. organized by the State Department.
Lesbian athlete Elvina Yuvakaeva, co-president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, arrived in Washington last week with a five-member delegation of Russians working on the 2014 Winter Olympics set to take place in Sochi, Russia Feb. 7-23.
Under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, Yuvakaeva and the Russian delegation will visit several cities to meet with professional U.S. sports teams and organizers of past Olympics games in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. The meetings are aimed at providing information helpful to the Russians’ effort to promote and carry out the Olympic Games in Sochi.
Yuvakaeva said she will also be meeting with U.S. organizers of the 2014 Gay Games, the quadrennial international LGBT sports competition scheduled to take place next summer in Cleveland. In addition, she said she will make use of her U.S. visit to promote a first-ever LGBT sports competition her organization is planning to hold in Moscow next March called the Open Games.
“Two years ago our organization was registered as an NGO [non-governmental organization] by our government,” Yuvakaeva told the Blade in a Sept. 15 interview. “And our small victory was in the papers,” she said, noting that the registration of organizations in Russia is considered a form of government recognition.
“In our papers the government saw that L means lesbian, G means gay, B means bisexual, and T means transgender,” she said. “So we understood that the government saw us and we are visible to our government and society.”
A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday declined to comment on the potential political significance of the selection of a lesbian sports activist for the U.S. exchange program.
Observers of the controversy surrounding calls by some LGBT activists in the U.S. and Europe for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in response to a recently passed Russian law that critics say subjects gays to persecution are likely to view Yuvakaeva’s selection as a signal of U.S. opposition to Russia’s policies on gays.
President Obama, who has expressed concern about Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, included Russian LGBT activists as part of a contingent of representatives of Russian civic organizations with whom he met during his recent participation in the G-20 international economic summit in St. Petersburg.
“Quite frankly, I’m not going to get into a political thing like that,” said Susan Pittman, director of media relations for the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.
“I would merely reiterate that these people are selected after their applications are in and they’re reviewed by the embassy and the consulates,” she told the Blade.
“These particular programs – we have a number of them throughout the year,” Pittman said. “They include emerging leaders in a variety of fields – in professions, in sports, in the arts, in culture. The whole idea is to bring these people here in order to be able to establish relationships with their American counterparts.”
Yuvakaeva said a U.S. Embassy official approached her and invited her to apply for the exchange program in August while she attended an embassy reception. The reception, to which she had been invited, was held at the embassy in honor of U.S. athletes participating in the 2013 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) track and field competition that took place Aug. 10-18 in Moscow.
Among those attending the reception, Yuvakaeva said, was American runner Nick Symmonds, who created a stir when he spoke out against the Russian law against gay propaganda after receiving a silver medal in the competition. Sports writers said Symmonds, who is gay, became the first international athlete to criticize the gay propaganda law while on Russian soil.
Yuvakaeva said the Russian LGBT Sport Federation was founded in 2010 as a non-political organization with the purpose of promoting and facilitating sports among Russia’s LGBT community. Among other things, it serves as a representative of the Russian LGBT community on the board of the International Federation of Gay Games.
She said Russian authorities have not sought to revoke the group’s registration following the approval earlier this year by the Russian parliament of the gay propaganda law, which Russian officials have said is aimed at protecting minors from homosexuality.
According to Yuvakaeva, authorities consider the Russia LGBT Sport Federation to be in compliance with both the propaganda law and a separate law banning certain organizations from receiving money from foreign groups or governments on grounds that the Russian sports group is non-political.
“The only thing is we couldn’t invite minors to our events and we wouldn’t spread some information among minors about our events because it’s outlawed,” she said in discussing the impact of the gay propaganda law on her group.
Concerning the Sochi Olympics, Yuvakaeva said the Russian LGBT Sport Federation opposes calls for a boycott on grounds that it would have a negative impact on the athletes and the LGBT community.
“My position and our official position is that a boycott of Sochi is a bad idea because the Olympics is a big event which is held every four years,” she said. “So Olympic athletes are preparing for this event a minimum of four years and it means Olympic athletes cannot compete and don’t have an opportunity to win medals.”
She said her organization also believes a boycott would have a negative impact on public opinion of the LGBT community in Russia and elsewhere.
“Our suggestion is to ask athletes, for example, at the opening ceremony to hold hands,” she said. “Same-sex people can hold hands during the opening ceremony to support LGBT people in Russia and all people.”
Although she won’t use her U.S. visit to campaign against a boycott, she said she will make her views known on the subject when she meets with LGBT sports representatives in the various U.S. cities to which she will travel through this month.
Among her priorities during her U.S. visit will be to promote and possibly raise money for the upcoming Open Games next year in Moscow, Yuvakaeva said. In what could be another first, she said she will ask officials of the Coca-Cola Company to consider contributing money for the Open Games when she and the Russian delegation meet company officials during their visit this week to Atlanta.
The delegation was scheduled to meet the Coca-Cola officials in connection with the company’s role as a sponsor of the Sochi Olympics.
“I want to ask Coca-Cola about these funds because they can make a PR campaign that says, OK guys, we’re sponsors of the Sochi Olympics. And in the same situation we support LGBT athletes in Russia because we gave some money for the Russian Open Games,” she said.
“So I think it might be interesting for them,” Yuvakaeva said. “We’ll see.”
While Yuvakaeva visits various U.S. cities in her participation in the State Department’s exchange program, Konstantin Yablotski, the other co-chair of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, is in Los Angeles promoting the Open Games on the West Coast.
Yablotski, a figure skater who competed in the 2010 Gay Games in Germany, and Yuvakaeva, an avid snowboarder and badminton player, are each committed to advancing LGBT equality in Russia through sports, Yuvakaeva told the Blade.
She said the sports planned for the Open Games, for which both LGBT people and heterosexual athletes are invited, are track and field, basketball, volleyball, badminton, soccer, tennis, table tennis, swimming and cross-country skiing.
Yuvakaeva said that while foreign athletes would be welcome to participate in the Open Games, her organization was still deliberating over the extent to which foreign participation may be possible due to logistical limitations and security and safety issues.
“Our main goal is propaganda for a healthy sports lifestyle among the LGBT and society,” she said.