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Sochi Olympics: Going for Human Rights Gold

kaiThe 2014 Winter Olympics, set for February 7-23 in the Russian city of Sochi, are about to begin this weekend. The XXII Games will go on, despite appeals for boycott due to the draconian anti-LGBT laws enacted in Russia last year.

President Vladimir Putin and his conservative parliament have made it illegal to promote “propaganda of non-traditional sexual practices in front of minors.” Putin is actually spreading and legislating on the medieval idea that LGBT people are immoral sexual predators. Speaking to volunteers in Sochi last week, he made his latest crass and misleading remarks, claiming that homosexuals who come to Sochi “can feel calm and at ease. Just leave the kids alone, please.”

Based on the foul ‘propaganda’ law in Russia today, the lives and well-being of gay people are severely endangered for holding hands, making any public displays of affection or partnership, having a rainbow flag or t-shirt, attempting to hold pride marches, etc. Anyone, gay or not, can be fined or thrown in jail for expressing support for us – much less being us!

Teenagers are isolated and bullied; kids can be taken from LGBT homes; and homophobic hatred, harassment and violence are all on the rise. In St. Petersburg in December, local organizers of a film festival and the American makers of the Oscar-winning film Milk who traveled to Russia had to persevere through 5 bomb threats to do a screening. It is all a brutal and shocking legal reality, threatening the most basic human rights and physical safety of people in Russia, not to mention the thousands of LGBT athletes, families, friends, coaches, fans, and straight allies arriving now in Sochi.

The Olympics boycott strategy was controversial and never gained serious traction. The US will send more athletes (230) to the Winter Olympics than any single country ever has, and Russia is spending more money than ever before by a host country. Almost all of us will turn on our televisions, not only to watch awesome athletic feats, but also to see how the situation unfolds there in the struggle for LGBT rights.

Fortunately, the virulence and backwardness of state-sponsored homophobia in this zenith of global sporting events has been eliciting outcries worldwide, and is galvanizing even more activism and momentum for full LGBT rights in Russia and everywhere. President Obama told Jay Leno he 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.”

In conscious counterpoint to Putin, President Obama met with social activists on a recent visit to Russia, and has chosen Billie Jean King and other gay athletes to join an American delegation to Sochi. Gay gold medalists Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden, Caitlin Cahow, and newly-out Brian Boitano are all going – while Obama isn’t. For the first time in years, under his direction, there will be no current or former American president, VP or First Lady on hand at the Games.

The message to Putin should be clear. Multinational corporate sponsors too are feeling the heat to openly support LGBT rights, denounce the Russian laws, and stop doing business with brutal homophobic regimes. It’s becoming known that big business sponsors had many chances since Sochi was chosen for the 2014 Games, to prevent Putin from going ahead with the discriminatory laws.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Human Rights Campaign are among a coalition of 40 human and gay rights groups across America, Europe and Russia petitioning the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors to actively oppose anti-gay discrimination as “all eyes turn toward Sochi.” Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have had to alter their PR and merchandising campaigns in response to daily pressure from enraged and savvy social media activists. Coca Cola, for example, featured 2 gay dads in a Super Bowl ad.

The International Olympic Committee has warned athletes against bringing politics onto medal podiums, but says they may make statements away from official venues and at news conferences. Fifty-two Olympic athletes, including 12 current competitors, the Australian bobsled team, and such gay superstars as Martina Navratilova and Greg Louganis, are outspokenly calling on Russia to repeal the hateful laws.

Look for athletes wearing ‘P-6’ logos, a campaign launched to constructively rebuke the Russians by spotlighting Principle 6 in the Olympic Charter that prohibits any form of discrimination as “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” Belle Brockhoff, an out gay Australian snowboarder who will be sporting P6, told a local newspaper before heading to Sochi: “After I compete, I’m willing to rip Putin’s ass. I’m not happy and there’s a bunch of other Olympians who are not happy either.”

Another hope I have for all of this LGBT attention at the 2014 Olympics is to shift the way Americans think about gay people and athletics. The sports world remains one of, if not the hardest places to be queer or to come out. More brave LGBT athletes are daring to share their sexuality publicly, but it’s still only a trickle. The number of out-athletes remains fractionally tiny because it’s still a very perilous road for them, their performance, their careers and endorsements.

While LGBT people make up 10% of the general population, we are not 10% of professional sports teams or Olympic delegations. At least not that we know of, since it’s so difficult to be out of the closet and compete. So far, and as of this writing, only 6 of 2500 Winter Olympians are out. That’s just 0.0024%! All are women; none are American. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there were 23 out athletes, of which 20 were women. (Next month, we’ll look further into how sexist stereotypes interact with homophobia, so that somehow it’s a little more okay for lesbians to do manly things like play sports, while the idea of gay men being jocks isn’t allowed in the heterosexist or macho mind.)

A little-known story occurred in 1985 when Ed Gallagher, who had been a football tackle while a University of Pittsburgh student, jumped off a dam 12 days after his first sexual experience with a man. He survived, but was left paraplegic. He later was very vocal about how his suicide attempt stemmed directly from depression and despair in facing the truth of his sexuality. As an out gay and disabled man, he became an author, activist and founder of the non-profit Alive to Thrive. Gallagher died in 2005, having left this quote that I think speaks so poignantly to the very core of all these issues: “I was more emotionally paralyzed then than I am now physically.”

As we sit in the comfort of our homes watching TV, let’s root for human rights and equality to take the torch and triumph in these Olympic Games. Let’s give our loudest cheers to known LGBT athletes and straight allies from any nation who are willing to take a stand against discrimination and oppression, and for the true ideals of all humanity. Let’s pray for the security of all those traveling to Sochi in the face of hateful threats to their safety. Let’s not be surprised by all the ways these issues play out during the Games. And let’s look for ways we ourselves can stand up in support of full human rights for every athlete and person on the planet.

For more information about Jamie Leno Zimron and her work, please visit www.thekiaiway.com/.