What To Do About Sochi?

9 Feb


Opinion is split over the best way to protest Russia’s new homophobic laws that legalize the persecution of its LGBT citizens. Some are boycotting the Olympic Games in Sochi and urging advertisers and spectators to do the same. Others are pointing out how gay the Winter Games are to begin with. The Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion has released a video about it. President Obama has sent a delegation of openly gay Olympians to represent the U.S. Germany’s heads of state are staying home while sending their athletes in suggestive uniforms. In his opening ceremony speech Friday night, IOC Chairman Bach stated, “It is possible—even as competitors—to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” (This comment was edited out of the broadcast seen in the United States. The National Broadcasting Corporation claims it was merely “edited for time.”)

Fashion commentator Simon Doonan at Slate declared the opening ceremonies the “gayest ever”:

The ceremony started and my sense of impending doom evaporated immediately. As soon as I saw the smiling Olympic Snegurochka snow princesses with their huge filigree headdresses and their vampy runway walks, I relaxed. Why? Because I was reminded of the deep and profound gayness of Russian culture.

How gay is Russia? Sorry, Vlad, but it’s far gayer than you might acknowledge or wish. Russia is Tchaikovsky gay. Mussorgsky gay. Nijinsky gay. Ivan The Terrible gay. Diaghilev gay. Eisenstein gay. Erte gay. When I say gay, I mean the very best of gay. I mean inspired, dramatic, flamboyant, theatrical and fabulously haughty. I mean Rudolph Nureyev gay.

The gay (and therefore glorious) moments of the Sochi opening ceremonies came thick and fast…

Meanwhile Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas, who is openly gay, has flashed her rainbow gloves in protest at the cameras.

Whatever tactic seems most effective to you, it is crucial to remain aware of the law and its very real consequences for everyday Russians:

The Health and Human Rights Journal finds rates of violence and suicide among LGBT Russian youth are rising.  From Human Rights Watch:


As the Games kicked off on Friday, four activists were arrested in St. Petersburg after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on any form of discrimination. They were detained on Vasilevsky Island, where I lived 12 years ago during a summer language course.

As a longtime russophile, I am accustomed to seeing protests of this terrible legislation, or any of the Federation’s anti-democratic institutions, devolve into snarky racism against Russia or Russians. As one blogger observes: “Russia; foreign enough for you to characterise the homophobia as uncivilised, white enough for you to care about the victims.”

Criticism of a nation’s human rights record should never slip into complacent xenophobia. That the homophobic law is attracting so much international attention is a wonderful but all too recent phenomenon. No one protested the 1996 Olympic Games when they were held in Atlanta, where homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment. How would Americans have reacted had Western European human rights organizations demanded a boycott of the Games back then? International condemnation of an entire culture usually does little from the perspective of those who live in that culture – on the contrary, it usually galvanizes nationalistic sentiment.

The professor who taught me my first semester of Russian was also in charge of our school’s LGBT Studies program. Every year his memorial award goes to a student who demonstrates dedication to the field of Russian and Eurasian studies.  For him, there was no contradiction in passionately loving a culture and speaking out against its greatest crimes. The Live and Let Love project of Sweden also appears to understand this, having released this video last month:


Ten protestors in Moscow did the very same on the opening day of the Games. Unlike Tilda Swinton, they were promptly arrested:





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