Response to anti-gay law shouldn't hurt Olympic athletes

Pictured L-R: Claire Harvey (British Paralympian), Peter Tatchell (Peter Tatchell Foundation) discussing human rights in Russia during the Westminster Russia Forum. Source: Nikolai Gorshkov

Pictured L-R: Claire Harvey (British Paralympian), Peter Tatchell (Peter Tatchell Foundation) discussing human rights in Russia during the Westminster Russia Forum. Source: Nikolai Gorshkov

Experts gathered at law offices in London to discuss the prospects of a mooted boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

On the day the International Olympic Committee changed guard at the top, an impressive panel of experts gathered at law offices in central London to discuss the prospects of a mooted boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics, in response to an anti-gay law introduced in Russia. The event was organized by the Westminster Russia Forum (WRF), a nonpartisan body dedicated to debating all things Russian.

The issue at hand was indeed controversial: Is boycotting the Sochi Olympics the best response to what many in the world and Russia see as an infringement of human rights, i.e., the recently introduced legislation banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors under the age of 18. As the chairman of WRF, Richard Royal, told the gathering, his inbox was inundated with quite vociferous emails on the issue.

The strong feelings set off by the law were indeed palpable in the audience. A veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, gave a scathing critique of the anti-gay law. He said that young Russians were entitled to know about same-sex love, since they would definitely come across it in their later life—either discovering their own homosexuality or meeting gay people.

Claire Harvey, an openly gay Paralympian, said the more the West tells Russia what to do, the less likely it is that the Russians will do so. There ensued a lively discussion about whether the law reflects the attitudes of the majority of Russians, and whether the aversion to homosexuality is deeply rooted in their cultural and religious tradition.

According to Richard Mole, a senior lecturer of political sociology at the School of East European and Slavonic Studies at UCL, the idea that Russia has no tradition of homosexuality is “absolute nonsense.” Foreign visitors to Russia throughout 15th-17th centuries were quite amazed at the openness of homosexual affections of men. While the Church had a bit of a negative attitude, it was not as bad as in other parts of Europe, he said.

There were no laws against homosexuality until the 18th century, and, when introduced by Peter the Great, they initially applied to soldiers only.

Following the 1917 Revolution, all czarist laws—including the law on sodomy—were thrown out. As a Soviet minister famously said, “We had socialism for long enough, so there is no need for people to be homosexual anymore.” To reinforce this suspicion, Stalin reintroduced anti-gay legislation in the mid-1930s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the law was dropped, alongside many other pieces of Soviet-era legislation.

According to Mole, the upheaval of the 1990s brought about psychological trauma and stress, with many Russians turning to religion. The Russian Orthodox Church took on the role of a custodian of the Russian cultural tradition and declared homosexuality incompatible with Russian family values.

Apparent support of this position by as much as 80 percent of Russians (by some estimates) is worrying to Andrew Pierce, a Daily Mail columnist. He is particularly concerned that, by invoking the protection of minors, the law conflates homosexuality with pedophilia, which is “the oldest trick in the book of anti-gay bigots” around the world, Britain included.

Tatchell accepted that the Russian law is a far cry from the anti-gay policies of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where LGBT communities may face execution. However, he argued that it is nevertheless a very menacing threat to members of the LGBT community, because it gives the green light for mob violence against homosexuals by promoting the idea that people who identify as LGBT are a threat and a danger.

The panel and the audience agreed that the mooted boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi was not a sensible response to the issue.

Pierce told the audience that he had a sense of trepidation when writing an article critical of Steven Fry’s inflammatory language about Putin’s Russia. Yet, most readers supported Pierce in his view that the boycott of the Sochi Olympics would be a big mistake.

This would be the most abject hypocrisy, according to the Daily Mail columnist. “We say we can’t go to the Sochi Olympics[…] Why did we go to Beijing: They’ve got a terrible human rights record,”  Pierce reminded the audience that a world soccer championship will be held in Qatar in 2022, and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter suggested that fans who are gay should not go, because Qatar bans homosexuality.

Coming back to the boycott issue, Harvey said that to deny an athlete who has been training for the Olympics for many years the right to compete feels completely wrong, even if the premise is right.

Pierce agreed. It would be completely wrong, he said, not to go to the Sochi Olympics. What more powerful symbol could there be than for a gay or lesbian athlete to win a medal and make a statement on the podium.  He expressed doubt that the Russian authorities would dare to lay a finger on that athlete for breaching the new law.

The discussion ended on a bit of a contradictory note—that cultural and religious tradition is not an excuse for negative attitudes toward the LGBT community—while acknowledging that it takes a lot of time and effort to overcome such cultural prejudices. After all, slapstick portrayals of homosexual mores and manners were quite popular on British television just a few years ago.

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