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Russian LGBT rights record overshadows Olympics

14 activists arrested before opening ceremony

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GetEQUAL, Russia, Vladimir Putin, gay news, Washington Blade
GetEQUAL, Russia, Vladimir Putin, gay news, Washington Blade

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.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Equality Florida quickly condemned the measure

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The Florida State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The Republican majority Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23 percent lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Los Angeles Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85 percent of transgender and non-binary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66 percent) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56 percent of transgender and non-binary youth said it made them feel angry, 47 percent felt nervous and/or scared, 45 percent felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, the Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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NCAA adopts new policy amid fervor over transgender athletes

Sport-by-sport approach requires certain levels of testosterone

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NCAA, gay news, Washington Blade
The NCAA has adopted new policy amid a fervor over transgender athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has announced it has adopted new procedures on competition of transgender athletes, creating a “sport-by-sport” approach that also requires documentation of testosterone levels across the board amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics.

The NCAA said in a statement its board of governors voted on Wednesday in support of the “sport-by-sport” approach, which the organization says “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”

Although the policy defers to the national governing bodies for individual sports, it also requires transgender athletes to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. The new policy, which consistent with rules for the U.S. Olympics, is effective 2022, although implementation is set to begin with the 2023-24 academic year, the organization says.

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown president, said in a statement the organization is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.”

“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy,” DeGioia said.

More specifically, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, transgender athletes will need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, the organizational. These athletes, according to the NCAA, are also required to document testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections.

In terms of jurisdiction, the national governing bodies for individual sports are charged determines policies, which would be under ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA, the organizational says. If there is no policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy or previously established International Olympics Committee policy criteria would be followed.

The NCAA adopts the policy amid controversy over University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas smashing records in women’s swimming. Thomas, which once competed as a man, smashed two national records and in the 1,650-yard freestyle placed 38 seconds ahead of closest competition. The new NCAA policy appears effectively to sideline Thomas, who has recently transitioned and unable to show consistent levels of testosterone.

Prior to the NCAA announcement, a coalition of 16 LGBTQ groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally, this week sent to a letter to the collegiate organization, urging the organizations strengthen non-discrimination protections as opposed to weakening them. The new policy, however, appears to head in other direction, which the LGBTQ groups rejected in the letter.

“While decentralizing the NCAA and giving power to conferences and schools has its benefits, we are concerned that leaving the enforcement of non-discrimination protections to schools will create a patchwork of protections rather than a comprehensive policy that would protect all athletes, no matter where they play,” the letter says. “This would be similar to the patchwork of non-discrimination policies in states, where marginalized groups in some states or cities are protected while others are left behind by localities that opt not to enact inclusive policies.”

JoDee Winterhof, vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the NCAA announcement the new policy was effectively passing the buck.

“If the NCAA is committed to ensuring an environment of competition that is safe, healthy, and free from discrimination, they cannot dodge the question of how to ensure transgender athletes can participate safely,” Winterhof said. “That is precisely why we and a number of organizations across a wide spectrum of advocates are urging them to readopt and strengthen non-discrimination language in their constitution to ensure the Association is committed to enforcing the level playing field and inclusive policies they say their values require. Any policy language is only as effective as it is enforceable, and with states passing anti-transgender sports bans, any inclusive policy is under immediate threat. We are still reviewing the NCAA’s new policy on transgender inclusion and how it will impact each and every transgender athlete.”

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