Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview from Sochi, Russia, on Wednesday that he has thus far seen little evidence of LGBT advocacy in the city ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Many of the athletes we are working with are just getting here and getting their bearings,” he told Blade contributor Kevin Majoros during a telephone interview.
Taylor, a former college wrestler who coaches the sport at Columbia University, said he has yet to talk with any of the athletes about Russia’s LGBT rights record since he arrived in Sochi earlier this week. He said he had a “very interesting conversation” with a Russian Olympic volunteer and a driver on Wednesday as they drove them to a television interview.
“I was reluctant to talk to them about why we were in Sochi at first but then the Olympic volunteer saw the Principle 6 shirt we had on,” said Taylor, referring to the campaign in support of the International Olympic Committee adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter’s anti-discrimination statement his group has spearheaded. “The text was in Russian and she said to me, ‘I understand. That is really a problem here.’”
Taylor said the Olympic volunteer told him she had a girlfriend for two years and has gay friends.
“When we were getting out of the car, the driver, who barely spoke any English, surprised me in the nicest way,” he told the Blade. “He had been listening to our conversation and he shook my hand and he said, ‘You’re beautiful and you are right.’”
Taylor also said he has yet to visit any of the protest zones the Russian government has established around Sochi — one of them is located in a coastal village roughly 11 miles southeast of the Black Sea resort city.
“Based on conversations that I’ve had with Russian activists, the protest zones are simply not a viable place to show dissent,” he said. “You had to apply and be approved to enter the zone. Think about the implications of that.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly sought to assure the IOC and his critics that gays and lesbians who travel to Russia for the Olympics would not face discrimination.
The Russian president told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos during an interview last month that those who protest the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the Olympics will not face prosecution under his country’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors. Authorities detained a Russian LGBT rights advocates who unfurled a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through the city of Voronezh the day after Putin spoke with Stephanopoulos and a handful of other journalists from Russia, China and the U.K.
“We haven’t seen any kind of protest or other issues since I’ve been here,” NBC 4 anchor Jim Handly, who is covering the Olympics for his D.C. television station, told the Blade from Sochi earlier this week.
The Associated Press reported International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said during a Feb. 4 ceremony in Sochi that the games should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.” The news agency said Bach appeared to single out President Obama and European officials who have criticized Russia’s gay propaganda law during his speech that Putin attended.
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes,” said Bach as the AP reported. “People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic games to make ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.”
Bach delivered his speech on the same day Human Rights Watch released a video that contained what the organization said is proof of widespread and systematic anti-LGBT violence in Russia. One of the clips contained within it shows a gay Uzbek migrant who was reportedly sodomized with a broken glass bottle.
Cuban authorities last month arrested Maxim Martsinkevich, an ultra-nationalist who flew to Havana from the Ukrainian capital after Russian officials charged him with extremism.
Martsinkevich and members of his group, Occupy Pedophilia, lure LGBT teenagers through fake accounts they set up over Russian social media networks. The men then abuse and beat their victims before posting videos of the assaults online.
“The Russian authorities have the power to protect the rights of LGBT people, but instead they are ignoring their responsibility to do so,” said Tanya Cooper of Human Rights Watch on Feb. 4. “By turning a blind eye to hateful homophobic rhetoric and violence, Russian authorities are sending a dangerous message as the world is about to arrive on its doorstop for the Olympics that there is nothing wrong with attacks on gay people.”
LGBT advocates in D.C. have planned a series of events this week around the Olympic ceremonies to highlight the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record.
The Human Rights Campaign, Team DC, Capital Pride, Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and Pride House International have organized an opening ceremony viewing party at HRC’s Rhode Island Avenue, N.W., office on Friday. Former professional hockey player Sean Avery is scheduled to emcee the event that will benefit the Russia LGBT Sports Federation.
The Council for Global Equality and the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in D.C. on Thursday will host the Sochi Sendoff Party at Madam’s Organ Restaurant and Bar on 18th Street, N.W., in Adams Morgan.
The event, which will benefit the Russia Freedom Fund, will feature live music from András Simonyi, the former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. who is managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and Misspent Youth. The benefit will also include a contest in which contestants will dress as Putin in drag.
“What we want to do is send a strong message from Washington that not only do we care about this, but the best way to convey a serious message is to do it in a humoristic, ironic way,” Simonyi told the Blade last week. “My experience with authoritarian leaders is they understand it better when there’s a little bit of humor in the message, but it’s dead serious.”