January 15, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
Olympic athletes urged to speak out against Russia LGBT record
Queer Nation, NYSE, Russia, Russia Day, New York Stock Exchange, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of Queer Nation NY protest outside of the New York Stock Exchange. (Image via Queer Nation’s YouTube Page)

With less than a month until the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, LGBT activists hope athletes who take part in the games will speak out against the Kremlin’s gay rights record.

“It’s important for the athletes to speak out, in Russia, about their belief that the way the Russian government is treating its gay and lesbian citizens is unacceptable,” said Andrew Miller of Queer Nation NY, which has held a number of protests in New York over the last few months to highlight Russia’s LGBT crackdown.

Speaking out against Russia’s gay propaganda to minors law and other anti-LGBT measures while in Sochi could prove easier said than done.

The Olympic Charter that the International Olympic Committee adopted in 2001 states “no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic games” outside of a manufacturer’s logo. Any athlete who violates this rule could face disqualification or a loss of their accreditation at the Sochi games.

“I am very reluctant to call on athletes to do anything that would explicitly jeopardize their ability to compete in the games or jeopardize their ability to win a medal,” Hudson Taylor, a former University of Maryland wrestler who founded Athlete Ally in 2010 to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.

Taylor, who is currently an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University, described the Sochi games as “an enormous moment where international attention is going to focus on sport.” He also told the Blade the athletes who compete in the Olympics will have a platform they could potentially use to highlight LGBT rights abuses in Russia.

“I would like athletes if they are asked about their opinions on these laws, to give their opinion on the laws or give their opinion around support for the LGBT community,” said Taylor.

Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, made a similar point.

“A lot’s on the line for athletes who may speak out in ways that the IOC does not like, such as losing their medal,” said Cobb. “I would never want to advocate for someone to put themselves in a situation to lose their medal or be chastised by the IOC, but at the same time we would support any athlete in their effort to really highlight what’s going on with LGBT Russians and to show solidarity with their fight.”

Retired tennis champion Billie Jean King, whom President Obama last month tapped alongside gay figure skater Brian Boitano and others to join the U.S. delegation to the Sochi games, discussed the issue on Tuesday during an appearance on “The Colbert Report.”

“I probably won’t protest,” King told Stephen Colbert. “But if the media asks me a question, I’m going to answer it.”

Doubts about enforcement of law remain

Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters during an October press conference in Sochi with IOC President Thomas Bach that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games. The IOC maintains it has received repeated assurances from the Kremlin the gay propaganda ban will not affect athletes and others who plan to travel to Sochi, even though Russian officials have previously said the statute will apply to those who attend the Olympics.

Taylor acknowledged it is highly unlikely Russia will repeal the gay propaganda law and other anti-LGBT statutes before the Sochi games begin.

“At this stage of things I think the most that we can hope for is to make sure these laws are not being enforced for the duration of the games,” he said, noting Russian officials have created specific areas where they say people can gather and protest. “I’m not convinced those same people protesting will be safe once they leave the protest zones.”

Miller told the Blade he would like to see the U.S. Olympic Committee, along with Coke and other Olympic sponsors pressure the Russian government to overturn the country’s anti-LGBT laws. He said members of Queer Nation NY will continue to hold protests and other actions during and after the Sochi games to highlight Putin’s LGBT rights record.

“He may be counting on the world’s attention focusing elsewhere after the Olympics,” said Miller. “It’s important to pressure them.”

He also said NBC, which will broadcast the Sochi games, can “cover what’s going on in Russia beyond the Olympics.”

Gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts criticized Russia’s gay propaganda law in a series of interviews he gave before he co-hosted the Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow last November with singer Mel B. Neither he, nor pageant participants discussed the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the broadcast of the event that NBC Universal co-owns with Donald Trump.

“They’ve done little to nothing about speaking out against the anti-gay laws and have done little to nothing about covering them or their effect,” said Miller.

Bob Costas, who will anchor the network’s prime time coverage of the Sochi games, told the Associated Press in November he welcomes the opportunity to directly ask Putin about the gay propaganda ban as opposed to offering his own commentary about it. He sought to clarify his comments during a Jan. 7 press conference in New York with NBC executives.

“If Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about it without him,” said Costas as the Huffington Post reported. “But if he shows up, we’d rather talk to him. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth? I would. That’s what I was trying to say.”

State Department issues Sochi travel alert

The U.S. State Department on Jan. 10 issued a travel alert to Americans planning to travel to Sochi following two suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd late last month that killed 34 people. The advisory also highlighted the vagueness of Russia’s gay propaganda law.

“The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia,” reads the State Department alert. “Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes ‘LGBT propaganda’ and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as ‘LGBT propaganda.’”

Cobb acknowledged security remains a serious concern ahead of the Sochi games. He stressed, however, those who plan to travel to the Olympics need to know about the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown of LGBT rights and other issues that include freedom of speech.

“It’s important for the State Department to be very clear with people traveling to Sochi about what the laws are in Russia,” Cobb told the Blade.

Hudson also said those who plan to attend the games should be “mindful of” the ongoing security concerns.

“We have to be careful and measured in how we are speaking out or how someone is protesting,” he said. “I don’t want somebody to expose themselves to potential physical harm. However, I think that there will be opportunities to speak your mind, to show support for the LGBT community without exposing yourself to those risks.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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