Sochi Olympics: Gay Rights Controversy

Demonstrators march for LGBT rights in Russia on August 31, 2013 photo by Marco Fieber courtesy of Flickr

Demonstrators march for LGBT rights in Russia on August 31, 2013
photo by Marco Fieber courtesy of Flickr

When you hear “Winter Olympics,” you probably think about snowboarding and ice-skating. However, you probably do not think about equal rights.

Yet, that is what has dominated many news stories about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Russia has a long history of discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Same-sex relations were only decriminalized in 1993 and being gay was classified as a mental illness until 1999.

However, that was not the end of the systemic oppression of LGBT people in Russia.

In 2013, Russia gained national attention for laws banning the distribution of materials related to “non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors.

This law outlaws all materials that in any way promote equality for LGBT people, leaving teens struggling to understand their sexual orientation or gender identity suffering in silence with no resources.

Russian police have also arrested numerous peaceful LGBT rights activists and the government reenacted a 100-year-old ban on gay pride parades.

Teenagers our age have also suffered from Russia’s acceptance of homophobia.

Videotaped assaults by neo-Nazi groups against gay minors spread across the Internet in 2013. In these videos, gay teens were interrogated, beaten and urinated on. Other incidences of hate crimes have skyrocketed as well, prompting international organizations to declare Russia worse for LGBT people now than ever before.

The anti-LGBT violence against teenagers in Russia that has been largely ignored should scare all of us at Lick-Wilmerding High School, even those of us who are not LGBT.

The victims of these hate crimes are like us. Maybe they, too, love basketball or researching the Haitian Revolution. These are normal teens—innocent teens—whom Russia’s outdated biases are leaving behind.

It is not only the Russian government that has ignored hate crimes and denied LGBT people their rights, though. The New York Times stated in an article published in August 2013 that the majority of people in Russia support discriminatory laws against LGBT people, including bans on same-sex marriage and gay pride parades.

How is this related to the Olympics?

Unfortunately, many of the athletes who have spent their entire lives training for the Sochi Olympics might have to now spend their time living in fear.

Multiple openly gay athletes are planning on competing, raising questions as to whether or not Russia will make any attempt to detain those athletes for promoting equality for LGBT people.

Anti-LGBT laws in Russia have also prompted responses from the governments of many nations. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced that they would not attend the Sochi Olympics; many LGBT rights groups have perceived this declaration has a boycott against Russia’s anti-LGBT laws.

President Obama has openly opposed Russia’s discriminatory policies.

In an August appearance on the Jay Leno Show, President Obama stated, “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

President Obama also employed other tactics to respond to Russia’s anti-LGBT policies, including appointing multiple openly gay athletes to be United States ambassadors to the Sochi Olympics.

In response to growing concerns over the treatment of openly gay athletes at the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to an article published on January 21 by the Daily Mail, said in early January “that gay people are welcome at the Winter Olympics, providing they ‘leave children in peace.’”

However, Putin’s comment did little to quell the fears of LGBT rights activists. In fact, Putin’s comment only created more backlash.

Actor Hugh Laurie, famous for his role as the title character in the TV show House, called for a boycott against Russian vodka on Twitter following Putin’s comment, as the Russian president’s remark insinuates that LGBT people endanger children. Many other high profile figures, including Dan Savage, founder of the It Gets Better Project, have also urged for boycotts against Russian vodka. Various bars in the United States have complied and Russian vodka has pooled in gutters and asphalt cracks.

This form of protest brings up questions about how we deal with countries with discriminatory policies.

It appears that we have decided to show solidarity for LGBT Russians through actions like dumping vodka in the streets rather than working with the Russian government to create meaningful, sustainable change.

Displaying solidarity can mean a lot to LGBT teens in Russia who feel otherwise alone and unsupported. However, dumping vodka and refusing to go to Russia are short-term solutions to a serious, ongoing problem.

While the solution to Russia’s rampant anti-LGBT movement is unclear, one thing that is clear is that the openly gay Olympians planning on competing in Sochi do not want people to boycott the 2014 Olympics.

Outsports, a company that supports LGBT athletes, has been clear in its approach to the Olympic controversy, especially in the release of an article in June 2013 where they highlighted their opinion regarding an Olympic boycott.

“Instead of walking away, LGBT athletes and their nations should march into Sochi holding their heads high.”

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About Amelia Roskin-Frazee

Amelia Roskin-Frazee is a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School. She is the co-Managing Editor of the The Paper Tiger. Outside of school, she is the Founder and President of The Make It Safe Project and is on the National Advisory Council for The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. In her remaining free time, Amelia writes novels, plays steel drums, and contemplates how strange it feels to write about herself in the third person.

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