Eighty-three members of the United States Congress have written to Secretary of State John Kerry to ask if the State Department will ensure the safety of LGBT athletes and spectators during Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Russia’s anti-gay ban on so-called homosexual propaganda has drawn widespread criticism since its being signed into law in June of this year. The nationwide ban, inspired by similar laws enacted by local jurisdictions like St. Petersburg, makes it an offense to advocate for or talk about gay rights in the public sphere, supposedly as a means of protecting children.
With Sochi, a city in Krasnodar Krai that is situated on Russia’s Black Sea coast, set to host the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic games, concern has grown that the law is so wide-reaching that any mention of non-heterosexuality or deviation from gender conformity could mean LGBT athletes or LGBT spectators fall foul of the law.
Now, 83 lawmakers have signed on to a letter requesting Secretary of State John Kerry reveal “what diplomatic measures the State Department is planning to take to ensure that American LGBT athletes, staff and spectators, and their supporters, are not arrested, detained or otherwise penalized during the Sochi Games.”
We are particularly troubled because while the newly signed law is the most recent and most extreme codification of Russia’s maltreatment of its LGBT citizens, it is also part of larger trend of anti-LGBT actions in Russia. In the last month, the Russian government also enacted a law banning foreign same-sex couples and single people from nations that have marriage equality from adopting Russian children. Hate crimes and violent attacks against the LGBT community have been reported, including the murders of two gay men earlier this year.
In 2012, Moscow instituted a hundred-year ban on LGBT pride parades, a ban that was deemed illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, but which nevertheless resulted in the arrest and detention of seventeen LGBT activists for displaying rainbow flags. Russia’s record of anti-LGBT legislation and persecution pose serious concerns for the safety of LGBT Sochi Olympic participants and spectators.
The letter notes that the International Olympic Committee has said that it would attempt to ensure that there would be no discrimination against or threat to athletes, spectators or officials but that its power was limited and that it would be the work of other agencies to tackle wider political issues.
While noting that they “applaud” the State Department’s strong advocacy on behalf of the human rights of LGBT people — an issue that seemed of particular importance to the previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the signing lawmakers say that it is vital the State Department continue its leading role and “determine[s] the appropriate course of action to assure the safety and well being of LGBT and LGBT—supporting individuals involved in or attending the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Paralympics.”
The letter ends by saying lawmakers signing to the letter are “committed to working together with” the State Department on this issue.
The lawmakers who signed on to the letter include key gay rights advocate Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and out members of Congress including Jared Polis, David Cicilline, Mark Pocan and Kyrsten Sinema. A full list of signatories is available here.
Russia’s nationwide ban introduces fines for individuals (100,000 roubles/$3,143) and groups (1m roubles/$31,401) who are deemed to have spread the “propaganda of homosexuality” as being something that is normal and/or healthy.
The law also reserves special penalties for non-Russians of up to 15 days in prison as well as a 100,000 roubles/$3,143 fine. This has coincided with a rise in far right violence against LGBTs and other minorities, and it has been warned that the propaganda ban is so poorly defined it could be applied to stifle most any kind of protest.
For their part, Russian officials seem conflicted as to whether the ban will apply during the Games.
While some lawmakers, such as one of the law’s main supporters Vitaly Milonov, have said that LGBT athletes and spectators will be subject to the ban, others have been less definitive.
Igor Ananskikh, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Physical Culture, Sport and Youth Policy Committee, told Interfax on Friday that Russia would need to be as “polite as possible” during the Games. While he said that participants must refrain from “propaganda,” he is quoted as implying there would be some leniency during the games.
While calls to boycott the games have been strong, both LGBT activists in the country and LGBT athletes from across the world have insisted that such a move would serve little purpose and that it would be better for LGBT athletes and supporters — who are mindful of the risk — to be as visible as possible during the Games so as to try to force change and draw attention to Russia’s human rights abuses.
Image credit: Center for American Progress.