Russia’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Olympics

I was thinking about today’s statement by the Russian Interior Ministry, in which they said that the country’s draconian anti-gay and anti-trans law will apply to Olympic athletes and guests (and media) at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

And it suddenly hit me.  Russia just imposed a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  (DADT) policy on the Sochi Olympics.

What the Russian Interior Ministry said today was that the country’s anti-gay law will be enforced against athletes, guests and media attending the Sochi Olympics.  But, they added, no one will be thrown in jail simply based on their sexual orientation.

The Russians were being too crafty by half, and at least one media outlet, the BBC fell for it.

The Russians are hoping that the world won’t realize that they never made it illegal to be gay.

The problem is, and always has been, that Russia made it illegal for anyone to find out that you’re gay. (And, if they do find out, you now run the risk of being kidnapped and tortured, thanks to, at best, the inaction, and possibly complicity, of the Russia government.)

There’s very little difference between being gay and “acting” gay.  But the Russians are hoping you’ll think there is.

Created by one of our readers, SD.

Created by one of our readers, SD.

What the Russian anti-“gay propaganda” law does is make it illegal for you to do (or say) anything that could end up convincing a child that being gay or trans is okay, normal, and acceptable.  The Russian Interior Ministry is now trying to claim that that means gay and trans people are off the hook, that they’ll be fine at the Sochi Olympics.  But it’s simply not true, as RIA Novosti, Russia’s own state-owned media, confirmed today.  The Russian Interior Ministry made clear that you’ll still be going to jail, whether you’re gay or straight, if you participate during the Olympics in “gay propaganda” that a child might risk seeing.

And the problem is that “gay propaganda” could be anything.

As we learned during our DADT experience in America, the simple fact of being gay is often telegraphed publicly in a myriad of ways that are often not even intentional.  For example, A gay Olympic athlete is invited to a public event during the Sochi Olympics.  His “family” is invited as well.  Maybe it’s a medal ceremony.  The gay athlete shows up with his husband, and media cameras, or print reporters, are present.  That athlete, and any reporter (or cameraman) reporting on the athlete being there with his husband, may every likely be in violation of Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” law.  Same goes for any Olympic visitor who photographs, or simply writes about, the Olympian and their gay spouse, and posts the comment, photo or video on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or anywhere else on the Internet.  That Olympic guest will also be going to jail.

In order for gay Olympic athletes to avoid going to jail, they will need to not only not acknowledge their gay spouse (or boyfriend/ girlfriend) in public, they will need to leave their significant other back in their home country all together, lest someone photograph or film or report on the presence of the gay spouse at the Olympics, and thus violate Russia’s law for everyone involved.

But it’s even worse than that.

Gay athletes also risk violating Russia’s law if they do an at-home interview with any of the foreign networks covering the Olympics (in America, that would be NBC).  During the Olympics, in the US at least, the networks always do an “up close and personal” segment showing the Olympian back home in the states with their family, preparing for the Olympics.  Gay athletes will need to kick their spouses out of their homes – and make sure there’s nothing “rainbow” – when the news crew comes to film, and they will be forced to not mention that they even have a spouse during the interview.  And ditto for the news crew, which will be equally liable should the interview take place and be broadcast from Russia, or in Russia.

Or are foreign news crews going to bleep gay athletes who mention their husbands and wives on camera?

That last point is hugely important.  So long as the media broadcast might possibly be watched by any child in Russia – which will happen if any of the media coverage is broadcast over the Internet – the athlete, their spouse, and the media in question will be in violation of Russian law.  And so might be anyone who embeds the broadcast, shares it via Twitter, or “likes” it on Facebook.

I could go on – there are a never-ending number of ways that Olympic athletes, visitors and media can run afoul of Russia’s anti-gay law.

Ironically, under the law, the media won’t even be able to report on the law’s existence, or its application to the Olympics, unless they ensure that they do nothing in their coverage that might suggest the law is bad.  Anyone who suggests anything negative about the law could be seeing jail time, or worse.

And should the Russians jail any Olympic athletes, guests, or media under the law – or worse, should any athlete, guest, or media be kidnapped and tortured (something that’s been growing in popularity of late) – it’s not entirely clear if the media can even report on the arrest, or kidnapping, unless they present the assault it in a positive, or at best “neutral” way (yeah she was kidnapped and tortured, but maybe she deserved it).

Think I’m exaggerating? Note that Russian news stories that include gay content now include warning labels for younger children. Here’s RIA Novosti’s warning label is routinely uses for any story about the Olympics that includes a mention of anything “gay.”

ria-novosti-caveat russia gay stoli

Russian state-owned media, RIA-Novosti’s, child warning label that goes on its gay coverage.

Is NBC going to include a warning label when New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup wears a rainbow pin during his competition, as promised?  When they report on Russia’s anti-gay law?  And what is NBC going to do when Skjellerup gets arrested?


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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