Sticking It to Sochi: Russian LGBT Activists on What Works

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

There’s no sugarcoating what’s happening in Russia in the days since the Duma and Prime minister Vladimir Putin passed its anti-gay laws earlier this summer. In a jaw-dropping video that Moscow-based journalist and longtime LGBT activist Masha Gessen posted to her Facebook page over the weekend, Dmitry Kiselev, anchorman and deputy director of VGTRK, the Russian state broadcast holding company—in short, a top representative of the Kremlin’s media machine—makes the following statement:

I believe it is not enough to impose fines on gays for engaging in the propaganda of homosexuality among adolescents. We need to ban them from donating blood and sperm, and if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts in the ground or burn them as they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life.

Kiselev’s audience claps and cheers.

So let’s be very clear, very fast about what will and won’t matter to Putin and his cronies when it comes to protesting. There’s no point in pretending that marching around the Olympic Village in Sochi this winter wearing rainbow pins will make a jot of difference, even on the medal-awards platform. “The Kremlin,” Russian LGBT activist Alexei Davydov tells me through an interpreter, “has taken a page from the Middle Ages. Incapable of solving the country's pressing problems, and with Putin's ratings falling, the Kremlin has decided to consolidate society through fear—and to this purpose is engaged in a search for enemies both internal and external. Gays have been chosen as these victims.”

Davydov should know. In this video, he very carefully breaks the new gay “propaganda” law and becomes its first test case by standing on the steps of a library with a sign that reads “Gay is normal.” The police haul him off, along with three other allies. What will happen to him when he’s tried is anyone’s guess. But Gessen—who, along with what one St. Petersburg legislator called her “perverted family” are the primary targets of a proposed law that will remove Russian children from their LGBT parents—urges supporters abroad “to keep reminding the Kremlin that the world is watching. We need media coverage of existing cases.”

That’s our real responsibility in dealing with a country where a solid 74 percent of citizens don’t think homosexuality should be accepted by society—not kidding ourselves that it will make a difference if we bring our loved ones to Sochi, chat with the people next to us at the bobsled track, and hold our children up for the cameras. Russia’s decision-makers couldn’t care less, and its media machine will simply spin those hearts-and-minds gestures into symbols of Western decadence. “Anything addressed to the public,” Gessen says, “risks playing into the hand of the people stirring up the homophobia.”

There’s certainly no point—I’m looking at you, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron—in refusing to boycott the games because we don’t want to penalize the athletes who have trained so long and hard. That legitimate concern could be addressed by simply pressing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to follow its own charter, which calls for removing the Olympic Games from any nation that does not satisfy its own requirements for equal rights and tolerance. Start working with the one senior IOC member from Norway who already shares this view to help bring others around to it. I’m sure Vancouver’s snowboarding ramps are still in fine repair.

Think long and hard before you evoke the spectacle of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—thus far the model for the West’s approach to Putin—or argue that winning LGBT athletes will “show 'em” in Sochi. In 1935—as in 2013—the International Olympics Committee was keen to pretend that sporting events could wash a clearly politicized setting of its politics, or wipe a dirty city clean. IOC chair Count Henri Baillet-Latour was content with Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s promise that anti-Semitic placards would be taken down during the Olympic games the next year.

In this Faustian bargain, Hitler hid the most obvious signs of what would later become his Final Solution. Jesse Owens, the allegedly “inferior” Negro, kicked Aryan butt on the track and came home with four gold medals (to a country where FDR refused to host him at the White House for fear of losing the Southern vote in the upcoming election). And then, once the international community had left, Hitler and his willing minions invaded neighboring countries and incinerated every fucking Jew, queer, or dissenter they could get their hands on.

If President Obama has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Davydov suggests he demonstrate that by instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to put Elena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov—the officials most responsible for Russia’s new laws—on the visa ban. The former is the Duma deputy responsible for the federal law banning gay "propaganda" to minors and for the law banning foreign adoptions of Russian orphans by gays and lesbians; the latter is the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy responsible for the law banning gay "propaganda" to minors in St. Petersburg. (Here’s a petition that asks Obama to do precisely that.) 

Essentially, Davydov is proposing to extend the Magnitzky Act to cover homophobes. This 2012 law punishes 18 Russian officials thought to be complicit in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after investigating fraud involving Russian officials, by prohibiting their entrance into the United States or use of its banking system. “If you forbade persons who advance fascist discrimination laws, such as deputies Mizulin and Milonova, entry into civilized countries,” says Davydov, “I assure you there would be few who would be ready to advance similar laws.”

There’s plenty that the rest of us could do as well. Russian LGBT activists have been saying for some time now that there’s no point in aiming at so small a target as the Kremlin’s heart, especially when its wallet presents a larger, more tender object. First, RUSA LGBT asked allies to boycott Sochi and all Russian products, and press for withdrawal of corporate sponsorship from the games. Then 34 LGBT Russian activists (including Davydov and Gessen) echoed that call in a letter released by Queer Nation.

So let’s keep dumping Russian vodka into the streets and outside of the Russian consulate in New York City. Let’s keep marching in London. Sign the petition that calls for Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Visa to condemn the laws and pull their sponsorship from the Sochi Olympic games (it’s now surpassed 100,00 signatures).

And keep taking actions like the one where activists confronted Russia’s U.N. ambassador with a petition signed by 340,000 supporters urging world leaders to help eliminate anti-gay laws in Russia ahead of the Sochi games. “Every time that Putin, or other government officials, or representatives of Russian big business or cultural institutions step foot into the West,” says Gessen, “s/he should have a hellish experience. They should encounter protests and questions about these laws everywhere they turn.” Let’s take a cue from Amsterdam, where public officials put their money where their mouth was: The rainbow flag flew above the capitol during Putin’s April visit, while yellow tape reading “Homophobia-free zone” cordoned off streets where thousands protested.

We have a chance to do things differently in Sochi than we did in Berlin. Let’s start with skipping the part where we appease a dictator, and instead give a damn about what’s happening beyond the scrubbed streets of the Olympic Village. Let’s lose the naïve notion that the wins of a few remarkable LGBT athletes will make any difference to the mobs of Neo-Nazi vigilantes luring gay teens with online ads, then kidnapping and torturing them—a process they like to videotape and post online for their admirers to enjoy. Let’s focus on forms of protest that will have an impact in locations beyond Sochi—actions that will continue to impede the progress of Putin’s Final Solution even once the crowds and the cameras leave.

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