WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, less than two months away, human rights and gay rights activists say it’s still unclear if and how President Vladimir Putin’s government will enforce during the games a recently enacted law that’s widely regarded as anti-gay.
“It’s not clear what happens if people at the games decide to be out or hold hands in public,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch. “We don’t know how the Russian government will respond.”
In June, Putin signed a law that prohibits individuals from promoting “homosexual behavior” and spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. It levels fines up to 5,000 rubles — about $155 U.S. dollars — for individuals, but more for officials. In addition, foreigners charged under the law could face administrative arrests for as long as 15 days.
Opponents say the law heightened anti-gay sentiment in Russia and created uncertainty about how it would impact the athletes, fans and tourists traveling to the Winter Games if they do anything that’s perceived as advocating lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender rights.
Putin and Russian officials say the law is designed to protect children.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a conference Thursday in Washington hosted by Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights advocacy group, that she fears the law will “impact the freedoms of our Olympic Games, of the athletes, of the coaches, of the fans as they visit Russia next year.”
Last month, 11 U.S. senators, including Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee expressing concern about the IOC’s determination in September that there won’t be a problem with the law because Russia will honor the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination of any kind.
“That will be the case, we are convinced,” Jean-Claude Killy, the legendary Olympic skier and chairman of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, told reporters in September. “Another thing I must add: The IOC doesn’t really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organized. As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied, and that is the case.”
Dmitry Kozak, a Russian deputy prime minister leading preparations for the games, said in September that the law doesn’t specifically target lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“If people of traditional sexual orientation spread propaganda of non-traditional sex to children, then they will also be held accountable,” he said. “So there is simply no need to talk about discrimination.”
The 11 senators aren’t convinced.
“We disagree with this position, and strongly urge you to reconsider given that the Russian law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ is clearly inconsistent with the Olympic Charter,” the senators told the IOC. “Although some Russian authorities have indicated that the law will not affect Olympic spectators and participants, we have yet to see a satisfactory explanation of what type of activities will be permitted.”
Putin signed a decree in August banning demonstrations and protests in Sochi during the Olympics. But that may not stop some individual athletes and spectators from displaying their displeasure over the propaganda law.
Ahead of the games, the groups All Out and Athlete Ally have launched a campaign to draw attention to Russia’s law by partnering with Los Angeles-based American Apparel to produce and sell a protest T-shirt.
The shirt paraphrases Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, stating, “Sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.”
At least three Sochi-bound athletes — Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, short track speed skater Blake Skjellerup of New Zealand and Canadian alpine skier Mike Janyk — have signed on to the campaign.
If protests or attempts to test the law happen in Sochi, Masha Gessen, a Russian LGBT activist and author, believes government officials won’t overtly react during the games, which run Feb. 7-23.
“I will bet half my house that there will be no enforcement of the homosexual propaganda laws during the actual games in Sochi,” Gessen told the Human Rights First conference. “It may happen outside of Sochi, but they do want the Olympic Games to go off without a hitch.”
The real test, Gessen said, will come Feb. 24, the day after the games are over.
“If past experience is any indication, the U.S. media are just going to completely lose interest in Russia the moment the games end,” she said. “That’s a very scary situation where nobody’s looking and he (Putin) gets to lash out, because he wanted to in the first place, and because he’s resentful because he couldn’t lash out quite as hard before the games.”