Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that bans ”propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and threatens openly gay or “pro-gay” citizens and foreigners with fines, arrests and possible jail time. Another new law restricts adoptions of Russian children by people in countries that allow same-sex marriage.
With the 2014 Winter Olympics set to take place in Sochi, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it has received assurances ”from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” It pledged to ensure there would be no discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators or the media during the games.
Many equal-rights activists are unimpressed with the IOC’s response, and feel that whether or not the laws directly affect the games is far from the point. ”They should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. ”Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”
In order to make their voices heard, activists have been writing petitions and staging boycotts.
The “Dump Russian Vodka” campaign, started by internationally syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, has prompted bars across the US, UK, Canada and Australia to stop serving Russian brands like Stolichnaya. In response, Stolichnaya’s CEO Val Mendeleev wrote an open letter last week condemning the recent laws and reaffirming the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community. The brand’s website has also undergone an overhaul, and now features a rainbow block of text boasting that the brand “stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the attitude and actions of the Russian government.” (We’d call this a winning damage control response)
Meanwhile, an open letter from the Human Rights Campaign to NBC, which holds U.S. broadcasting rights for Sochi, says it would be wrong to televise the games’ opening ceremonies without reporting on the anti-gay legislation. A similar petition asks that NBC make Rachel Maddow a human rights correspondent during its Olympics coverage. In response, Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said, ”We will address it [the laws] if it becomes an issue…If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it.” (We’d call this a delicately-crafted yet rather lame “No.”)
Though most boycotts and petitions currently in the works fall shy of boycotting the Olympics all together, it’s possible to imagine the momentum of these protests heading in that direction. Even if that turns out to be the case, the United States Olympic Committee likely won’t be taking part in such a boycott. As the IOC points out, it is unlikely that the Russian government would be the institution to feel the negative effects of such a boycott. ”History has proven that the only people that are negatively affected by boycotts are the athletes who have trained their whole lives to compete,” said Patrick Sandusky of the U.S. Olympic Committee. ”Past boycotts have not worked, and the USOC is not planning on boycotting these Games.”
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