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Louganis: Russian Open Games marred by disruptions

Threats, smoke bomb, police target LGBT event

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Greg Louganis
Gay News, Washington Blade, Greg Louganis

Retired Olympian Greg Louganis last December took part in a Russia briefing on Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Retired Olympic diver Greg Louganis is among those who participated in the Russian Open Games that ended in Moscow on Sunday.

Louganis, who competed in a table tennis tournament during the five-day event that drew more than 300 LGBT athletes from Russia and other countries that include the U.S. and Sweden, arrived in the Russian capital early last week after he received a last-minute visa.

He left Moscow on Feb. 28.

The gay retired Olympian who won two gold medals during the 1998 Summer Olympics in Seoul and in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles participated in a Feb. 27 press conference at a Moscow gay nightclub that opened the Russian Open Games. A bomb threat forced him and organizers to speak with reporters outside in the building’s parking lot.

The Washington Post reported the U.S. Embassy hosted a basketball game between participants and diplomats on Sunday after a smoke bomb disrupted a tournament two days earlier.

Louganis, who learned he was living with HIV six months before competing in Seoul, told the Blade police escorted him and more than 30 other Russian Open Games participants out of an ice rink on Feb. 27 after someone reported a group of “strange people” had arrived. He said they had simply gone to the rink for what he described as a “group workshop” about “teaching us some skating skills.”

“They made it clear we were not welcome,” said Louganis. “Just the looks of disdain as we were escorted off the premises was just really concerning.”

Louganis told the Blade he was sending e-mails from a coffee shop across the street from the building where the Russian LGBT Network was holding a panel after the ice rink incident when Konstantin Yablotskiy of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, which organized the Russian Open Games, said the event had been interrupted. He said Yablotskiy told him somebody suddenly turned off the lights and told them the venue would have to close if they didn’t leave.

Louganis said Yablotskiy and Elvina Yuvakaeva of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation told only one person about venues they had secured for various competitions – and this person escorted participants to them after they met at a Metro station. Louganis told the Blade that Yablotskiy told him to take precautions that included not saying anything specific during telephone conversations because he was sure “others were listening.”

“It was a very interesting environment,” said Louganis, noting he had last been to Moscow more than a decade before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. “It kind of reminded me of that; that everything was watched, was observed, scrutinized.”

The Russian Open Games took place a few days after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ended.

The Kremlin’s LGBT rights record that includes a 2013 law banning gay propaganda to minors overshadowed the Sochi games. Organizers of the Russian Open Games did not allow anyone under 18 to participate – they also included a disclaimer on its website that read “the information on this site is intended only for the use of those aged 18 and over.”

St. Petersburg Legislative Assemblyman Vitaly Milonov, who spearheaded his city’s gay propaganda ban that inspired the law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last June, denounced the Russian Open Games. The lawmaker also urged Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to cancel the event.

Yuvakaeva last week said four venues that had initially agreed to host the games abruptly cancelled their agreements. The hotel where the Russian LGBT Network had planned to hold its forum also cancelled the scheduled event.

Louganis told the Blade he had not heard about the 10 LGBT rights advocates who were arrested near Moscow’s Red Square on Feb. 7 as they tried to sing the Russian national anthem while holding rainbow flags before the Sochi opening ceremony. He said a gay couple he met in the Russian capital told him about the arrests – and the officers who reportedly beat and threatened to sexually assault the activists while inside a local police station.

St. Petersburg police on Feb. 7 arrested Anastasia Smirnova and three other LGBT rights advocates as they tried to march with a banner in support of the campaign to add sexual orientation to the Olympic charter’s non-discrimination clause.

“I really wanted to be a participant [in the Russian Open Games] just to get an objective view rather than the propagandized vision of what it was in Sochi,” Louganis told the Blade, discussing Russia’s LGBT rights record. “Sochi I heard was wonderful and everybody was bragging and the media was over-reacting and all of this. You don’t know until you’re there.”

Louganis was also in Moscow as Russian troops prepared to take control of Ukraine’s Crimea region amid outrage from the U.S. and Europe.

The Kremlin on Monday reportedly issued an ultimatum that demanded the surrender of the crews of two Ukrainian warships on the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday as tension between Washington and Moscow continues to escalate after the country’s Kremlin-backed president went into hiding following the deaths of dozens of anti-government protesters in Kiev.

“We were aware of what was going on with the borders being enforced,” said Louganis. “There was talk of invasion. There was this thing going on, but we were just focused on the event… with every turn we had to adjust and adjust and adjust. We were constantly trying to adjust to the immediate present and trying to make the Open Games as successful as we possibly could.”

Louganis added he was repeatedly impressed with the games’ organizers’ resilience against efforts to disrupt events.

“It was very impressive,” he told the Blade. “It was also very eye-opening for me from my personal experience.”

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India

Indian government creates committee to study rights for same-sex couples

Country’s Supreme Court last October ruled against marriage equality

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(Photo by Rahul Sapra via Bigstock)

The Indian Supreme Court seven months ago declined to grant legal status to same-sex marriages. 

At the time of the verdict, however, the Supreme Court instructed the federal government to establish a committee to address the myriad issues faced by the LGBTQ community in India. These include matters such as pensions, joint property ownership, healthcare access, and child custody.

In compliance with the Supreme Court’s directive, the Indian government on April 16 established a committee with Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba appointed as its chair. The committee, consisting of six members, will include secretaries from the Home Affairs, Women and Child Development, Health and Family Welfare, Social Justice and Empowerment, and the Law Ministries.

“The Hon’ble Supreme Court vide its judgment dated 17.10.2023, in Writ Petition No. 1011/2022 Supriyo@Supriya vs. Union of India, has directed the central government to constitute a committee to be chaired by the Cabinet secretary to examine the various issues relating to queer community,” said the gazette notification.

A 5-judge constitutional bench led by Chief Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud refused to recognize the right to marry as a fundamental right for same-sex couples. The country’s top court stated, while delivering the verdict last year, that parliament must decide whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Supreme Court acknowledged it cannot make laws but can only interpret them. It also recognized queer people cannot be discriminated against. The court had said that the material benefits and services given to heterosexual couples and denied to queer couples violate their fundamental rights. 

Chandrachud and Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul in their dissenting opinion advocated for civil unions instead of marriage, arguing this approach would grant legal rights to same-sex couples without extending full marriage rights. They emphasized that while marriage may not inherently confer rights, it offers certain “intangible benefits in the form of expressive advantages” and provides a “bouquet of rights” for couples to exercise.

“For the right to have real meaning, the State must recognize a bouquet of entitlements which flow from an abiding relationship of this kind. A failure to recognize such entitlements would result in systemic discrimination against queer couples,” said Chandrachud. 

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, the country’s second-highest law officer, at the time had stated a committee chaired by the Cabinet secretary would be formed to delineate the rights that should be available to LGBTQ couples in a union.

The Supreme Court had outlined several entitlements for the LGBTQ community that include the right for queer partners to be treated as part of the same family for ration card purposes, the ability to set up a joint bank account, jail visitation rights, recognition as “next of kin” by medical practitioners, and the right to access the body of a deceased partner to arrange the last rites.

“The committee shall set out the scope of the benefits which accrue to such couples,” stated the Supreme Court in its 2023 ruling. 

In last year’s judgment, the Supreme Court said “legal consequences such as succession rights, maintenance, financial benefits such as under the Income Tax Act 1961, rights flowing from employment such as gratuity and family pension and insurance.” 

The Income Tax Act 1961, provides some benefits to married couple in India, such as a maximum deduction of 199,654.44 ($2,400) that can be claimed in a financial year. Married couples can opt for a joint home loan with tax benefits on interest paid and principal repaid, and also get a higher loan amount. These financial benefits, however, are not available for LGBTQ couples in the country. Similarly, as per the rule of family pension in India, if a deceased government servant or pensioner is survived by a spouse, they will be the first to receive a family pension. Children and other family members become eligible for it only after the spouse of the decedent or pensioner become ineligible for a family pension or dies.

Activists say the establishment of a committee chaired by the Cabinet secretary to address the issues faced by LGBTQ couples in a union is a promising step forward. 

“The Supreme Court’s  verdict on October 17 last year marked a significant milestone in recognizing the rights of LGBTQ individuals, and this committee could play a crucial role in translating legal recognition into practical and effective policy changes,” said Souvik Saha, an LGBTQ activist and founder of People for Change. “The formation of this committee is particularly important in a state like Jharkhand, where LGBTQ individuals face unique challenges. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), LGBTQ people in India, especially in rural areas, continue to face significant stigma and discrimination. In Jharkhand, these challenges are compounded by socio-economic factors and a lack of awareness and acceptance among the general population.”

He also said this committee’s effectiveness will depend on its ability to engage with LGBTQ communities, understand their needs, and implement policies that are both inclusive and practical. 

“As someone working on the ground, I would emphasize the importance of including voices from all parts of the LGBTQ spectrum, particularly those from marginalized communities,” Saha said.

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India, and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion. 

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Politics

Libertarian Party nominates gay candidate for 2024 presidential election

Chase Oliver was third-party U.S. Senate candidate in 2022

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Chase Oliver (Screen capture: YouTube/ABC 11)

After a contentious seven rounds of voting on Sunday, the Libertarian Party nominated Chase Oliver, a gay sales account executive and former U.S. Senate candidate, to run in the 2024 presidential election.

Oliver will represent America’s third largest political party, whose endorsement had been solicited by the leading Republican and Independent candidates, Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Libertarian candidates typically earn about one percent of the national vote share during presidential elections, though Gary Johnson earned three percent in 2016, and Jo Jorgensen secured more votes than comprised the margin of victory in some 2020 battleground states.

Oliver’s third-party candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2022 helped force a runoff election that was won by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

Both Trump and Kennedy spoke at the Libertarian convention over the weekend, but they only earned a respective 0.65 percent and two percent of the votes from the party’s 900 delegates. (Trump, a write-in candidate, would likely have been ineligible to receive the nomination since he is the presumptive GOP nominee.)

Taking aim at Trump as well as the Democratic nominee, President Joe Biden, Oliver said during his acceptance speech, “We know that the lesser of two evils continues to give us more evil. But we’re done with that, and so are the voters.”

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Africa

South Sudan refugee camp is ‘not a safe haven’ for LGBTQ residents

Gorom Refugee Settlement is outside country’s capital of Juba

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U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Michael Adler visits the Gorom Refugee Settlement on Oct. 25, 2023. The camp's LGBTQ residents remain marginalized. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan)

LGBTQ people who live at a refugee camp in South Sudan say the mistreatment they are suffering because of their sexual orientation and gender identity has left them even more marginalized.

The U.N. Refugee Agency runs the Gorom Refugee Settlement, which is roughly 16 miles from Juba, the country’s capital, in partnership with ACROSS and other South Sudanese NGOs.

UNHCR says more than 20,000 refugees live at Gorom, with the Anyuak people from Ethiopia making up the largest group. They have been there since 2011 when South Sudan became its own country after it broke away from Sudan.

Although this is not the first time the plight of LGBTQ people has been raised; the challenges seem to continue unabatedly and grow worse as each year passes. They are denied employment opportunities, with some of their children unable to access education.

Yaga Piuson, an LGBTQ activist for Gorom, says the situation has become even more dire.

“The immediate challenges faced by LGBT persons within the camp are severe and pervasive,” said Piuson. “They endure daily attacks, lack of police assistance, death threats, stoning, abuses, discrimination, bullying, denial of medical care, and the inability for their children to access education. Many are also deprived of proper shelter, leading to health risks such as pneumonia.” 

Piuson added UNHCR and ACROSS have done little to address these challenges, while the South Sudanese government has turned a blind eye.

“As of now, both the UNHCR and ACROSS have not provided a durable solution,” said Piuson. “While they have initiated interviews with LGBTQIA+ individuals, the options presented, relocation to other camps within South Sudan or urban areas, pose significant risks due to the country’s stance against homosexuality.”

“Unfortunately, the South Sudanese government and civic organizations have yet to offer any substantial assistance in alleviating these challenges,” added Piuson.

Piuson added some of the refugees have fled Gorom because of the continued persecution they face. Piuson said the settlement was no longer safe for LGBTQ refugees who include Anyuak, Darfurians from Sudan, Congolese and Burundians.

“Many of these nationalities have fled because of wars,” noted Piuson. “However, LGBTQIA+ individuals have fled solely due to persecution based on their sexual orientation.”

“Resolving the plight of LGBTQIA+ persons within the settlement requires providing them with a safe environment to freely exercise their rights, including freedom of movement and access to basic needs such as shelter and education for their children,” added Piuson. “It’s crucial to emphasize that the Gorom Refugee Settlement is currently not a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ individuals.”

ACROSS Executive Director Elisama Daniel in response to the Washington Blade’s request for comment said the organization did not have the mandate or jurisdiction to answer questions on the plight of LGBTQ people at Gorom, and directed questions to UNHCR. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations in South Sudan remain criminalized with up to 10 years in prison, although there is little to no evidence that anyone has been charged with homosexuality. The South Sudanese government, however, is contemplating an anti-homosexuality bill that is similar to those pending in neighboring Kenya and other countries.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in May 2023 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that prompted worldwide outrage.  

South Sudanese Minister of Information, Communication, Technology and Postal Services Michael Makuei Leuth ahead of Pope Francis’s visit to the country last year said marriage is between a man and a woman and added any form of same-sex marriage violates the constitution. The government spokesperson also emphasizes there would not be any discussions around LGBTQ-specific issues. 

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