LGBT Russians at
risk, panel says
by David-Elijah Nahmod
LGBT Russians, more so than their Olympic counterparts, are at risk under the country's anti-gay propaganda law, human rights and sports experts said this week.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Club on the eve of the Sochi Winter Games, the panelists agreed that LGBTs are an easy target for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The February 4 panel was entitled, "From Russia Without Love: the 2014 Winter Olympics and Human Rights in Russia." The room was packed with about 150 people.
Last summer, Putin signed the anti-gay law that makes it a crime to "promote" homosexuality to minors. The vague law means that such things as public displays of affection could subject LGBTs to fines or jail time. There have been reports of violence in the months since the law took effect.
Putin and Olympic organizers maintain that LGBT athletes will be safe during the games, but it's unclear what would happen if someone spoke out in favor of LGBT rights.
"Putin feels the need to bolster his power by uniting people against a common enemy," said Krista Hanson, Ph.D., a professor of Russian culture at San Francisco State University. "LGBTs are an easy target. Laws now allow for gays to be detained for saying anything which compares gay relationships to straight relationships."
Hanson pointed to weaknesses in the Russian Judiciary. "The idea that a leader could be held accountable in Russia is foreign," she said. "President Putin acts to return the country to authoritarian rule. He controls all TV broadcasts in Russia, which is where most Russians get their news. There have been many murders of journalists who investigate corruption."
Julie Dorf, a senior adviser with the Council for Global Equality, pointed out that LGBT life in Russia was relatively good before the crackdown began.
"The crackdown has been dramatic," she said. "The fear across the community is pervasive. People want to flee. Daily discrimination includes people being harassed by neighbors, firing teachers, and taking children away from lesbian parents."
Dorf described what's called an "occupy pedophilia" movement across Russia. People have been entrapped and tortured, which is filmed and put on the Internet.
One panelist pointed out that the International Olympic Committee's charter prohibits discrimination.
Helen Carroll, director of the sports project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that Principal 6 of the Olympic Charter recognizes the practice of sports as a human right and states that athletes must be able to practice without discrimination of any kind. The charter says that the group being discriminated against must be named according to race, religion, or otherwise.
"It does not specify LGBT status," Carroll said.
Dorf added, "Principal 6 protects from discrimination but bans protest."
Hanson said that having the Olympics in Russia were important to Putin.
"If President Obama and several European heads of state aren't going, and Obama sends Billie Jean King [an out lesbian tennis champion] instead, then Putin isn't happy. It's a snub. The White House did a fantastic job," she said.
The audience applauded.
(On Wednesday, the White House announced that due to an illness in her family, King would no longer be attending the games. Out hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, originally scheduled to participate in the closing ceremony, will join gay skating champion Brian Boitano at the opening ceremonies.)
"The risk to athletes is low," Hanson said, referring to possible prosecution under the law. "The Olympics are Putin's baby. He wants them to go without issues. They want Sochi to look gay-friendly. It's LGBT Russians and allies who are at risk."
Dorf then spoke of a Russian ninth grader who came out and was put on a sexual predator list.
Carroll said the IOC could have acted once Putin signed the anti-gay law.
"They could have moved the Olympics," said Carroll. "That would have taken a bold move. The Olympic committee isn't bold. They should look at host countries' human rights records."
Dorf said there were no easy answers.
"There is no perfect country," said Dorf. "These choices are made 10 years out. These laws did not exist then. Future Olympic countries might start looking like Norway, France, and Canada."
The panel called for keeping the pressure on the Russian government, holding Olympic sponsors accountable, and doing whatever possible to help asylum seekers.
"The National Center for Lesbian Rights is looking closely into helping asylum seekers," said Carroll.
Added Dorf, "Stay informed. Plug in and don't forget about them."