Will Russia arrest gay Olympic athletes at 2014 games?

Will Russia arrest gay Olympic athletes in 2014? And does the International Olympic Committee even care?3

Answers:

1. Maybe.

2. Doesn’t look like it.

Russia, as it veers further and further away from even trying to pretend that it’s interested in becoming a more democratic state, has become increasingly homophobic as well.  A number of cities now have laws banning any public expression of support for homosexuality, and Russian legislators are pushing a nationwide ban on “gay propaganda.”

“Propaganda”means pretty much anything said or done in public that suggests being gay is okay.  The law is so vague that it could including holding a pro-gay sign.  Wearing a pro-gay pin.  Wearing rainbow suspenders.  Holding hands with someone of the same-sex.  Kissing someone of the same-sex.  Appearing at a Pride parade.  Defending your gay child anywhere in public.  Writing a pro-gay letter to the editor.  Writing a news story that appears to be “pro-gay” to the authorities.  And possibly even living with your same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend.  The law is open to interpretation by local authorities.  Propaganda laws were the most-common way the Soviets would oppress dissidents. In the past, the Soviets were quite liberal with their interpretation of what constitutes a violation of “propaganda” laws.  The Russians are showing the same openness.

Which brings us to the Olympics.

We’d already expressed concern last year over the Russians banning the games from having a “Pride House” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes.  A Russian judge ruled that if they permit Pride House at the Olympics, it could stop Russians from having babies, and thus their entire nation would quite literally fall apart.  Seriously, that was the judge’s ruling.  The IOC, when pressed on the issue, got all weasel-y, and basically isn’t lifting a finger to help.

Which brings us to next year’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup, who is gay, is understandably concerned about competing in Russia next year, should he make the team, as he tells USA Today.  And I don’t blame him.  The USA Today reporter, however, doesn’t get it:

Though it’s hard to imagine a gay Olympian being arrested for wearing a rainbow pin, will athletes be worried about the impact of homophobia at a time when they should be focused on competition?

Not that hard to imagine, actually.  They arrest people for wearing rainbow suspenders, and they’re going to be okay with a rainbow pin?  These are people who threatened Madonna and Lady Gaga.  They couldn’t care less about the supposed perils of arresting an Olympic athlete – these are not people who are shy about being bigots.  They had no problem man-handling Dan Choi, in spite of his already-international fame.  Not to mention, they could always leave the athlete alone and arrest his or her gay or trans Russian friends who associate with him.

What did the US Olympic Committee have to say about any of this?

The U.S. Olympic Committee declined to comment when asked if officials planned to address such concerns with athletes before the Games.

Nice.

And why are we even having this discussion in the first place?  What are we doing having the games in a country that doesn’t respect basic human rights, and is already discriminating against Olympic athletes based on their sexual orientation?  Would the IOC be so blasé about bias based on race or religion?  Doubtful.

Now for a few words about openly-gay US figure skater Johnny Weir.  Weir is a huge fan of Russia, speaks Russian, and is married to a man whose parents grew up in the USSR.  Weir had this advice for those concerned about Russia’s horrific human rights record on gay and trans issue:

If he makes the Olympic team, Weir doesn’t want to make an issue of his sexuality, he said. For him, the Olympics should be about sport and competition. But he does have advice for gay athletes unfamiliar with the culture.

“My advice would be: Watch what you do when you leave the Village, don’t be aggressive, don’t wear a big rainbow flag fur coat. If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.”

Then Weir added, in a way only he can, “I’m not going to be having sex in a Metro station. And if you are doing that, then maybe you deserve to be caught.”

Mother of God.  I get that not every famous gay person has had the years of experience working on these issues that a lot of us have had, and thus they don’t have the understanding, or the nuance, that others in the community have on issues like this.  But when famous gays speak out about issues concerning our civil rights, they should be held accountable for not knowing what they’re talking about, especially when their words are harmful to the community.

WTF, Johnny?

You think the issue here is gay people wanting to have public sex in the metro?  Do you even know what is happening in Russia right now to gay people?  Gay Russians are being beaten up by the police, or, worse, far-right neo-Nazis who are working in cahoots with the police, for simply trying to hold a minimal Pride march.  Moscow has banned Pride for the next 100 years.  They arrested a guy for wearing rainbow suspenders.  And you’re making cracks to USA Today about gays having sex on the metro?

And you recommend that athletes “don’t get aggressive” about being gay?  It sounds like you’re telling gay people not to “flaunt it.”  Where have we heard that advice before?  Oh, from every homophobe on every issue we’ve ever fought.  If only those flaming gays would stop flaunting themselves in public, there wouldn’t be a problem.

I think part of the problem is who Weir is.  He’s a gay man who, dare I use the phrase, likes to “flaunt” it.  That picture I posted to the right is pretty middle of the road for the photos you find of Weir online.  So I can imagine in his mind, if you don’t dress like that, you’ll be fine.  The thing is, there are a lot of ways that gay people “flaunt” who they are, and it’s not just by playing with our hair, wearing make-up and sporting silver Michael Jackson gloves.  As anyone in the military, or who’s been fired from a job, can tell you, we’re routinely accused of flaunting it for basically doing anything that even vaguely suggests that we are gay.  Be it having a photo of your spouse on your desk at work, or even answering a coworker’s question about where you went last night (out with your boyfriend, or to a bar known to be gay?).  Or how about, an Olympian wins a gold medal and runs to the arms of their same-sex spouse and shares a big kiss on international TV.  In parts of Russia, that will get you thrown in jail.

It’s extremely easy for a gay Olympic athlete to be caught up in Russia’s growing patchwork of anti-gay propaganda laws by simply saying the “wrong” thing at the wrong moment.

Whether intentional or not, Weir is serving as a public apologist for the Russian regime’s horrific homophobia.

Marc Naimark, the Federation of Gay Games vice president for external affairs, summed things up nicely for USA Today:

“When they choose a country that’s homophobic, they send a message to the world and to gay athletes, among those messages is, ‘if you’re not out, stay in the closet.'”

Johnny Weir’s message seems to go farther: “Even if you are out, stay in the closet.”


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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