Upcoming Winter Games Puts Spotlight on Russian Homophobia

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi fast approaching, Russia is making headlines due to concerns over a host of recently introduced anti-LGBT legislation.

Concerns were briefly assuaged last week when the Russian government released a statement to the International Olympic Committee reassuring the international community that LGBT foreign athletes would be exempt from Russian anti-LGBT laws. What little comfort this gave was then swiftly removed when Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, proclaimed that foreign athletes would indeed incur punishments if found to be “propagandizing” for LGBT rights. These punishments amount to a fine of 5,000 rubles ($155) for an individual and up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for a company, including media organizations. There may also be a 90-day suspension for legal entities found to be providing information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to children.

The uncertainty surrounding LGBT athletes at the Games has caused doubt as to how to react. Many, such as notable playwright Harvey Fierstein, have called for a boycott and have also requested that corporate sponsors pull their backing. However, others believe a boycott will do more harm than good. U.S. athlete Stephanie Hightower told The Moscow Times that she believes it is better to engage with Russia than to block it out. She feels that competing in the Winter Games can itself be used to send a message that the international community is opposed to the devastating laws being enforced in Russia.

Alternatives to boycotting have included a ban on Russian vodka in some bars around the world, a call for a pride parade to be held during the Games and, here in the U.S., a petition to make openly gay MSNBC host Rachel Maddow the “human rights correspondent” for NBC’s coverage of the Games. Individuals have also spoken out: Speed skater Blake Skjellerup from New Zealand has pledged to wear a rainbow pin during his time in Sochi.

Concern for Russia’s LGBT citizens is something that is in danger of being overlooked, however, with most media attention focusing on international high-profle athletes. Nonprofit organization Athlete Ally has begun a campaign for solidarity with Russian citizens against the government. Martina Navratilova, Abby Wambach, Andy Roddick, Megan Rapinoe and Rennae Stubbs are among more than 80 athletes who have said they will stand with the Russian LGBT community against discriminatory laws.

The world is taking a stand against Russian’s anti-LGBT laws and the Winter Olympics is providing a platform to do so. In what ways do you think we could effectively stand in solidarity with Russian citizens?

Photo of Blake Skjellerup from Twitter user Memeographs 


Natasha Turner is a freelance journalist and editor based in London and a former Ms. editorial intern.