Playing it Safe

30 November 2013

American figure skater Johnny Weir is worried about competing at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

“Just walking down the street, going to get Starbucks in the morning […] somebody could arrest me jsut because I look too gay,” he told CBS News.

Does it seem too absurd to contemplate? Alarmingly, this snippet of Russian legislation means that the situation is all too real:

Foreign citizens or stateless persons engaging in propaganda are subject to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, or they can be deported from the Russian Federation and/or serve 15 days in jail. If a foreigner uses the media or the internet to engage in propaganda, the fines increase to 50,000–100,000 rubles or a 15-day detention with subsequent deportation from Russia.

“Propaganda” constitutes any open acceptance of homosexuality or “non-traditional” sexual orientation. Under this law, people in Russia who are openly gay—or who openly support gay rights—can be detained.

Apologists for the law claim that it has been passed in order to correct Russia’s declining birth rate, and growing divorce rate. They want to maintain the sanctity of the traditional family unit. They want to preserve it for their children. Allegedly, it has nothing to do with prejudice.

“Regarding this law, if people of traditional sexual orientation spread propaganda of non-traditional sex to children, then they will […] be held accountable,” says Dmitry Kozak, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing preparations for the Sochi Olympics. “So there is simply no need to talk about discrimination.”

If ‘spreading propaganda’ constitutes much of the online support for gay rights in Australia, gay Australian athletes, as well as Australian athletes who are outspoken in their support of gay athletes, will probably face problems at the Sochi games. This will occur for no other reason than the fact that they do not support prejudicial treatment based on sexual orientation. That’s… pretty discriminatory.

One athlete who problematises the viability of Russia’s anti-gay laws is retired Olympic field hockey goalkeeper and Australian gay rights activist Gus Johnston. In 2011, he defended his sexual orientation in a Youtube video. The video, to date, has had over 102,000 views. It is a video which would, in Russia, be likely to come under scrutiny on the basis that it “spread[s] propaganda of non-traditional sex”. Johnston slammed the Russian laws and expressed sympathy for the athletes competing.

“The foundation of this law is propagandistic in its own right. In its basic form it is discriminative and fear-mongering and grossly counter to the ideals of the Olympic movement. It deserves contempt, not compliance,” he told Farrago. “It’s an awful predicament for athletes. The amount of individual sacrifice that funnels into an Olympic dream is extraordinary, and shouldn’t for a moment be underestimated. For many that only get one shot at it, there really isn’t a ‘better luck next time’ when it comes to the Olympics.”

Indeed, in the wake of so many positive messages being disseminated apropos of gay rights in Australian support, any number of athletes could come under fire, merely for being associated with what Russian legislation sees as “homosexual propaganda not conducive to procreation”. Many athletes will have to choose between tacit compliance with discriminatory legislation and the opportunity to compete.

In the UK, Stephen Fry has campaigned for a boycott of the Sochi games in the form of an open letter to PM David Cameron. In it, he argues that it makes no sense for Britain—where same-sex marriage was legalised in July—to stand by and “do nothing” whilst in Russia. He wrote of Britain standing idly by while “a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian ‘correctively’ raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs”. A recent Galaxy poll suggests that most Australians would agree with Fry, given that 64% of us support equal rights for LGBTQ individuals in the form of same-sex marriage.

Boycotts are not uncommon in the history of sporting events. When Berlin was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics, Spain and the Soviet Union opted out in protest of Germany’s anti-Semitic policies under the Nazis. This shows that it is not the first time legislation of prejudicial treatment has jeopardised the harmonious spirit of the Olympic Games. Many find it difficult to envision the Olympiad as a philanthropic endeavour when it is held in a country where inequality has the support of legislation.

Farrago talked to anti-homophobia activist and AFL player Jason Ball about what Australia’s responsibilities are to athletes.

“Prejudice must first be eradicated in our laws before we can hope to eradicate it from society,” he says. “Russia’s anti-gay laws and its persecution of its own GLBTI citizens are completely inconsistent with this mission and the spirit of the Olympic Games. Australia must clearly articulate that it supports the rights of its own athletes. If it fails to do this, it is complicit in the intolerance and injustice.”

Incidentally, Ball’s words bear a resemblance to those of Ernest Lee Jahncke, an American member of the International Olympic Committee in 1936 who protested against prejudicial laws in Germany:

[We cannot] take part in the Games in Nazi Germany without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis.

The comparison drawn here between Russia’s current persecution of homosexuals and Nazi Germany’s past persecution of Jews is relevant because it raises the question of how competing in international sporting events might result in complicit support for the discriminatory actions of a host nation. Both sets of laws deny the rights of a demographic based on arbitrary criteria. Both sets of laws are reprehensible in that they seek to phase out—with the objective to eradicate—that demographic.

It’s clear that the Olympics are held in high esteem by Australians. These are the same Australians who have put the majority of their support behind the legislation of same-sex marriage. Overall, compliance with Russian laws at the Olympic Games sends the wrong message about Australians and intolerance. The disparity between democratic opinion and current Australian legislation needs to be addressed. In order to throw our weight behind any sort of condemnation of discrimination at the Sochi Olympics—and in general—Australia at the very least must send the message that we as a nation reject homophobia. Legislating same-sex marriage would be a great start. At the Sochi games draw closer, the question for Australia and other nations is how we can reject homophobic actions and embrace this particular chapter of the Olympic games.

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