by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
To boycott or not to boycott, that is the question.
The Russian government's pogrom against the country's LGBT population has put the future of the upcoming Winter Olympics in jeopardy, as Russian human rights activists and the international community debate how to respond.
Twenty-three Russian LGBT activists have issued a statement calling for a boycott of the Games, scheduled to begin February 7, 2014, in the resort town of Sochi.
'International support is essential for the survival of Russia's LGBT community right now,' they wrote. 'Vladimir Putin's regime will not get away with anti-Gay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies, and the Olympic Games in Sochi.'
AN OCCASION FOR PROTEST?
Other Russian activists, however, are urging the world to participate in the games but use the occasion to protest Russia's anti-Gay policies.
The Russian LGBT Network, an NGO affiliated with the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), called for athletes and spectators to attend the games but visibly display solidarity with Russia's LGBT population.
'We believe that calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies, and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk [transforming] the powerful potential of the Games [into] a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families, and allies in Russia in solidarity and taking a firm stance against the disgraceful human rights record in this country,' the group said in a long statement posted on its Facebook page.
'We call for organizations and individuals who are attending the Games to exercise freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and to not fall accomplices to the homophobic policies by censoring [their] own beliefs, statements, and identities,' the statement continued. 'The Olympics in Sochi should embody the ideals and values of the Games and should demonstrate to everyone who is watching that the greatest athletes stand strong with their LGBT competitors and partners, out or closeted, and that together they stand strong with LGBT people and allies everywhere.
'Do not boycott the Olympics - boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!'
PRIDE FESTIVAL PLANNED
Moscow Pride leader Nikolai Alekseev announced his group would organize a 'Sochi Pride' to correspond with the opening day of the Olympics.
'It's official! The organizing committee of Moscow Gay Pride and founders of the banned Pride House Sochi decided [July 29] against the boycott of Winter Olympics in Sochi and instead to organize Winter Sochi Pride on the day of the opening of Olympic Games on 7 February 2014.
'Join us! It will be much more effective to draw attention to official homophobia in Russia all around the world and expose the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee, which went into discriminatory agreements with [the] Russian regime, and of the European Court of Human Rights, which still has not considered our complaint concerning the unlawful denial to register Pride House Sochi! Vive Sochi Pride 2014!'
GAY ATHLETES WEIGH IN
Two of the most prominent Gay American Olympians also joined in opposition to a boycott of the Sochi games. Gay figure skater Johnny Weir, an admirer of the theatrical Russian skating style and the husband of a Russian citizen, announced that he would compete at Sochi.
'The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating human rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions, but I still will compete,' Weir told the Associated Press.
'I respect the LGBT community full-heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia's stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof,' he added.
'I beg the Gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world. I pray that people will believe in the Olympic movement no matter where the event is being held, because the Olympics are history, and they do not represent their host - they represent the entire world.'
Olympic diver and AIDS activist Greg Louganis told the New York Times that 'Boycotts don't work - boycotts hurt the wrong people,' meaning athletes who lose their opportunity to compete rather than the host country.
Recalling the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Louganis said, 'It was pretty devastating. For most of us, we train our entire lives for that one moment in time.'
Weir and Louganis are joined by Gay New Zealand speed-skater Blake Skjellerup, who announced he would compete wearing a rainbow pin while in Sochi.
'For me it's less about taking a stand and more about just being myself,' he said. 'I have no interest in going back into the closet in Sochi & this is not about defiance. This is me standing up for what I believe in.'
ECHOES OF 1968
For those old enough to remember the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the prospect of athletes using the Sochi games as a platform for a human rights statement calls to mind the stunning action of U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the medal stand.
Progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin spoke with Carlos recently about the parallels between Mexico City and Sochi for Grantland blog.
'The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you,' Carlos said. 'If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we'd never have been heard from again.'
Zirin raised the possibility that athletes who made a pro-Gay statement in Russia might be disciplined, or even expelled from the country.
'Yes, it takes courage,' Carlos replied. 'but if you have a conviction that what you are doing is right, then you're going to make the right move. Someone has to sacrifice if we are going to move forward. You might be forgiven in your lifetime; you might not. But if you're in the right, your sacrifice will be appreciated.'
WILL SOCHI BE SAFE?
A key question that opponents of a boycott must address is whether Sochi itself will be a safe place for LGBT athletes and spectators. The International Olympic Committee issued a statement on July 29 saying it had 'received assurances from the highest levels' of the Russian government that athletes and fans would be exempt from arrest under Russia's 'Don't say Gay' law that forbids so-called 'homosexual propaganda.'
Nevertheless, Russian officials maintain that they will enforce Russian law.
Vitaly Milonov, the St. Petersburg legislator who introduced the 'Don't say Gay' law in the Russian Duma, said the government could not suspend the law for the Olympics even if it wanted to.
'I have not heard any comments from the government of the Russian Federation, but I know it is acting in accordance with Russian law,' Milonov told Interfax. 'If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn't have the authority.'
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko confirmed on August 1 that his country would enforce the anti-Gay law, even against foreign athletes.
'An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn't banned from coming to Sochi,' Mutko said in an interview with R-Sport, the sports newswire of state news agency RIA Novosti. 'But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.'
Given that Russia has already provoked an international incident by arresting four Dutch citizens for 'homosexual propaganda,' the stage seems to be set for a confrontation if LGBT athletes and their supporters follow through with plans for visible expressions of dissent.
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