I love the Olympics. I was a varsity fencer in college and have done serious stints with a few other sports. I love the life lessons sports teach, including dedication, leadership, teamwork, and dealing with both success and failure—all values I’d like to convey to my son. I get choked up during recap montages and medal ceremonies. Normally, then, the start of the Olympics is a time of celebration around my house. And then there’s Sochi.
The Russian government’s ban on “propaganda of unconventional sexual relations” has made watching these Olympics a difficult act. As a parent, my viewing is bound up with the ban’s impact on Russian children and young people. The Russian government may soon pass a bill that would allow them to take children away from LGBT people simply because they are LGBT. Both President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak have associated gay people with pedophilia, saying they are welcome to the Olympics as long as they leave children alone.
Young LGBT people in Russia struggle to find support. Russian journalist Yelena Klimova, who founded “Children 404: We Exist,” an online community for queer teens and adult allies, was charged with violating the propaganda law and faces a fine and closure of the site. She is herself only in her mid-20s.
Additionally, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report February 5 that concluded the propaganda law “encourages stigmatization of and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including children, and children of LGBTI families.” It also said it was concerned that the vague definitions of propaganda could lead to ongoing persecution, abuse, and violence, “in particular against underage LGBTI rights activists.” It recommended that the government repeal the law to ensure that “children who belong to LGBTI groups or children of LGBTI families are not subjected to any forms of discrimination by raising the awareness of the public on equality and non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Here are some things I am trying to keep in mind, then, as I watch the games this year:
Russia does not define the Olympics. What does are the athletes from all nations, many of whom are LGBT, and many of whom are speaking or acting out in support of LGBT Russians or about their own LGBT identities.
Awareness of Russia’s repressive policies will spread during the games, as organizations and individuals around the world take action. One great example of this is Google’s rainbow-colored Olympic doodle, which premiered worldwide the first night of the games and included Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which says discrimination of any kind “is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Additionally, a group of current and former Olympians and professional athletes has launched the “Principle 6” campaign, encouraging individuals to include the red-and-white Principle 6 logo on their social media profiles. Sales of clothing with the logo will both support the campaign and go directly to LGBT advocacy groups in Russia. And LGBT media organization GLAAD is working to showcase stories of 360 LGBT Russians.
Some of the publicity around Russia’s policies may already be doing some good. A 14-year-old girl in Russia was accused under the propaganda law simply for coming out to her classmates, reported Klimova to LGBTQ Nation, but “the decision was reversed due to negative publicity in the international press.”
Baseball, hot dogs, lesbians, and Chevrolet. During the games, Chevrolet has been running a commercial that includes two same-sex couples, one with moms and one with dads. And Coca-Cola is running a commercial that includes two gay dads and their daughter. Two classic American brands, showing support for LGBT (or at least LGB) inclusion. That’s progress.
I wonder, though, how many people who see the commercials will connect them to the situation in Russia? I appreciate the firms’ support within the U.S., but hope they also publicly support LGBT people around the world, including their own employees and franchisees. GM (Chevy’s parent company) employs 2,500 people in its plant in St. Petersburg, Russia, and plans to increase that to 4,000 by 2015, and Coca-Cola Hellenic in Russia employs approximately 13,000 people, according to the companies’ websites.
As someone of Russian Jewish heritage, I am acutely aware not only of the repression exercised by Russian and Soviet governments over the years towards various groups of people, but also of the Olympics’ tense history with authoritarian regimes. After the U.S. decided not to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Germany, Jesse Owens subverted Hitler’s message of Aryan superiority—and I am hoping that out athletes and allies will do the same with their medals in Sochi.
Owens’ victory did not, however, stop Hitler, and LGBT victories in Sochi won’t in themselves change Russia’s laws. But perhaps they will help shine some light where it needs to be shed.
We should remember, too, that upon Owens’ return to New York, he and his wife could not find a hotel that would accept a Black couple until one allowed them to come in through the service entrance. We are far from LGBT equality here in the U.S. (and still working on racial equality, for that matter), and must continue our efforts here even as we also reach a helping hand abroad.
As we watch the Olympics, then, let us use them to convey to our children the benefits of sport, of international understanding, and of speaking out against injustice wherever it may be.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.
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