February 7, 2014 at 10:49 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Olympics open amid outrage over arrest of Russian LGBT activists
Queer Nation, New York City, New York, Russia, Sochi, homophobia, Winter Olympics, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of Queer Nation NY protested outside the Russian consulate in New York City on Feb. 6, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Queer Nation NY)

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, officially opened on Friday amid outrage over the arrest of more than a dozen Russian LGBT rights advocates earlier in the day.

Police arrested 10 activists near Moscow’s Red Square who held rainbow flags as they sung the Russian national anthem just before the games opened. Authorities have released the advocates, but reports indicate police beat and threatened to sexually assault them while they were in custody.

Anastasia Smirnova is among the four activists whom St. Petersburg police took into custody on Friday as they tried to march across a bridge holding 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.

Officials later released Smirnova and the three other advocates, but they face charges of participating in an illegal public assembly. They are scheduled to appear in court on Saturday.

“Tonight’s about solidarity,” said Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, as he read an e-mail from Smirnova at HRC’s Northwest Washington offices during an opening ceremony watch party his organization co-hosted with Team D.C., Capitol 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.”

Gay figure skater Brian Boitano and lesbian ice hockey Olympian Caitlin Cahow are among the members of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi games. Retired tennis champion Billie Jean King earlier this week dropped out because of her mother’s failing health.

“There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination,” President Obama told NBC’s Bob Costas during an interview that aired before the network broadcast the opening ceremonies.

Some of the Olympic athletes themselves appeared to show solidarity with Russian LGBT rights advocates during the opening ceremony.

Those who gathered at HRC to watch the opening ceremony applauded members of the Greek Olympic team who wore gloves with rainbow tips as they marched into Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas, whose wife is Norwegian, wore a helmet and gloves with a rainbow and unicorn on them during the slope style event in which she competed on Thursday.

A song from t.A.t.U, a Russian band whose members once claimed they were lesbians, played as the Russian Olympic team marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony.

Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, unfurled a poster in support of adding sexual orientation to Principle 6 during the opening ceremony. Google on Thursday also changed its homepage to show its support of the initiative.

“It is surreal to be here in Sochi in the heart of the games and learn of the arrest of protesters using Principle 6 messaging,” wrote Taylor on his Facebook page after the Olympics officially opened. “It proves with undeniable clarity that these Russian laws contradict everything that the Olympic Movement stands for. We stand in solidarity with them.”

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. Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month those who protest his government’s LGBT rights record will not face prosecution under the country’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors.

“We aren’t banning anything, we aren’t rounding up anyone, we have no criminal punishment for such relations unlike many other countries,” said Putin during a Jan. 17 meeting with Olympic volunteers in Sochi. “We have a ban on propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia, I want to underline that, on propaganda among minors.”

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 back of these athletes.”

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

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Hundreds attended a opening ceremony watch party at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters in Northwest D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Those who gathered at HRC to watch the opening ceremony said they wanted to show their support for LGBT Russians.

“It shows our love and support towards our Russian friends,” Team D.C. President Les Johnson told the Blade.

Jessica Strother of Northern Virginia had a similar message as she watched the opening ceremony while holding Russian and U.S. flags.

“I’m here with the flag to promote good will,” she told the Blade. “I came down here to support gay rights for Americans and Russians.”

LGBT rights advocates in New York, Philadelphia and nearly 40 other cities around the world held similar events during the opening ceremony.

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

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