February 12, 2014 at 11:01 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Russian LGBT rights record overshadows Olympics
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Members of GetEQUAL on Feb. 9 protested outside the Russian embassy in Northwest D.C. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Kristofferson)

The 2014 Winter Olympics officially opened on Feb. 7 amid outrage over the arrest of 14 Russian LGBT rights advocates earlier in the day.

Police arrested 10 activists near Moscow’s Red Square who held rainbow and Russian flags as they sung the Russian national anthem just before the games opened in Sochi.

Elena Kostynchenko, who is among those taken into custody, told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Moscow on Feb. 8 that officers beat one activist and choked another once they arrived at a local police station.

She said authorities also threatened to sexually assault her and another female advocate. Kostynchenko told the Blade officers also made lewd comments about her body and spit in her face before her release.

“They didn’t care about anything,” said Kostynchenko.

St. Petersburg police earlier on Feb. 7 arrested Anastasia Smirnova and three other Russian LGBT rights advocates as they marched with a banner that read “discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic movement. Principle 6. Olympic charter” in reference to a campaign in support of adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter.

Smirnova appeared on a U.N. panel in December that commemorated the 65th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She later took part in a Capitol Hill briefing on Russia’s LGBT rights record.

Smirnova told the Blade she and the three other activists faced additional harassment after St. Petersburg officials released them from custody on Feb. 7. She said it took them three hours before local police officers and other authorities allowed them to retrieve their car that had been towed.

“We are sorry to learn of the detention of activists in Russia for making political statements,” Aaron Jensen, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, told the Blade after Russian police arrested Smirnova and the other LGBT rights advocates in St. Petersburg and Moscow. “This is an example of the disturbing trend in the Russian Federation of legislation, prosecutions, and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and groups that advocate for human rights and government accountability.”

Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is among those who also criticized the activists’ arrest.

“Tonight’s about solidarity,” said Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, as he read an e-mail from Smirnova during an opening ceremony watch party his organization co-hosted with Team D.C., Capital Pride and Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and Pride House International that benefitted the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. “Let them know we stand in solidarity with them.”

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Advocates showed their support for LGBT Russians in Berlin on Feb. 11. (Photo courtesy of David Ehinger)

Activists in New York, Philadelphia and nearly 40 other cities around the world held similar events during the opening ceremony. A handful of activists gathered outside the Russian embassy in Northwest D.C. on Feb. 9 to protest the Kremlin’s gay rights record.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month those who protest his government’s LGBT rights record during the Olympics would not face prosecution under the country’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors. The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from the Kremlin that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games that are taking place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

The Blade’s attempts to reach the Russian government for comment on the arrests were unsuccessful.

“We understand that the protesters were quickly released,” said IOC spokesperson Sandrine Tonge on Feb. 9. “As in many countries in the world, in Russia, you need permission before staging a protest. I understand this was the reason that they were temporarily detained.”

IOC President Thomas Bach said during his speech at the opening ceremony that people should “have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful” way and “not on the backs of these athletes.”

“Olympic games are always about building bridges about bringing people together,” he said before he and Putin officially opened the games. “Please respect the Olympic message of good will, of tolerance, of excellence, of peace.”

Bach also said it is possible for competitors “to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” NBC omitted this portion of the speech from its broadcast of the opening ceremony.

Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, spent several days in Sochi highlighting the campaign in support of adding sexual orientation to Principle 6 of the Olympic charter.

David Pichler, a gay U.S. diver who competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics and 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney, told the Blade during a telephone interview from Sochi on Feb. 9 that he had not seen any athletes publicly speak out in support of LGBT rights. Gay figure skater Brian Boitano, lesbian hockey player Caitlin Cahow and former Secretary of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano are among the members of the U.S. Olympic delegation to the games.

“We haven’t been to a lot of the different games where somebody might try to flash a symbol,” said Pichler, who was in the Olympic host city with Shawn Gaylord and Mary Elizabeth Margolis of Human Rights First. “I imagine we would have heard if there had been something like that.”

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From left: Mary Elizabeth Margolis and Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First and Olympian David Pichler in front of the Olympic torch in Sochi, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Human Rights First)

The group visited a gay nightclub on Feb. 8 where they met with Andrei Ozyorny, a 24-year-old man who wrote to Sochi Mayor Anatony Pakhomov last month after he said there are no gay people in the city. Pichler, Gaylord and Margolis met with Smirnova and two other Russian LGBT rights advocates in St. Petersburg on Feb. 6 – one day before police arrested her and three other activists.

Pichler noted to the Blade an anti-LGBT protest took place in Sochi before the games officially opened.

“[It] is kind of contradictory of the standards of the protest zone and everything that was set up,” he said. “There was not anything negative or any type of action taken on them.”

LGBT rights advocates continue to target Coca-Cola and other Olympic sponsors for not criticizing Russia’s LGBT rights record – HRC served Coke and other Coca-Cola products during its opening ceremony watch party in D.C. Queer Nation NY on Feb. 10 criticized lesbian speed skater Ireen Wust after she said she had a “cuddle” with Putin after winning a gold medal for the Netherlands.

“The Olympic athletes have said that they will not make political statements during the Games yet that is exactly what Ireen Wust did,” said Queer Nation NY member Duncan Osborne. “By embracing Vladimir Putin, a man who has trampled on the human rights of LGBT Russians, political dissidents, artists, undocumented immigrants, and others in Russia, Wust has endorsed his fascist agenda.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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