February 7

In Sochi, gay activism remains wild card

Russia’s anti-gay policies loom in the background as the Olympic Games open.

By Barbara Barrett
Mcclatchy Foreign Staff

And William Douglas

SOCHI, Russia — With the world’s focus turned to Sochi, Russia, for Friday night’s Opening Ceremony and the Olympic competitions to come, human rights activists hope to keep attention on the host country’s law prohibiting so-called gay propaganda. They’re facing a challenge.

click image to enlarge

Demonstrators protest Russia’s anti-gay policies in London on Tuesday. The protest was held as part of Global Speakout for Russia, which is taking place in more than 30 cities across the globe ahead of the Winter Olympic Games.

Reuters

Will there be a political statement like the Black Power salutes by Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games? Will rainbow flags be unfurled at strategic moments?

Athletes are being asked their views and activists are planning ways to get attention, and yet Russians – some of them – are wondering what the fuss is all about.

Svetlana Rajaetskaya, owner of a women’s clothing store in Sochi, said in a recent interview she’s “indifferent” to the law. She said there’s a gay population and a couple of gay clubs in Sochi, countering assertions that Sochi’s mayor made on BBC that there aren’t any gay people in his town.

ATHLETES FOCUS ON GAMES

“They are very accepting,” Rajaetskaya said of Sochi residents’ attitudes toward LGBT people. “If a gay person passes them in the street, they are very accepting.”

But despite the media attention on the law, few athletes in Olympic Park appear to be concerned about its impact – though they also aren’t endorsing Russia’s approach.

“There shouldn’t be any problems with it, if you’re gay or not,” said Tomas Marcinko, an ice hockey player for Slovakia. “These games should connect all people, no matter who you are.”

In interviews prior to the opening of the Winter Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the LGBT community has nothing to fear from the anti-propaganda law.

“There’s no danger for individuals of this non-traditional sexual orientation who are planning to come to the games as visitors or participants,” Putin told the BBC last month.

“If you want my personal attitude, I would tell you that I don’t care about a person’s sexual orientation,” Putin said.

That was reiterated Thursday by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, who told reporters in Sochi that the country does not “differentiate between people depending on their religion or their sexual orientation.” Kozak added: “We are all grownups, and any adult has his or her right to understand their sexual activity. Please do not touch kids. That’s the only thing.”

Many Russians interviewed on the streets of Sochi and nearby Adler last week said they weren’t familiar with the anti-propaganda law and its potential impact.

Alexander Galdenko, 25, who works at a movie house on the Black Sea waterfront promenade in Sochi, said he’s devoutly religious and considers homosexuality a sin. Though unfamiliar with the details of the anti-propaganda law, Alexander said there shouldn’t be laws that specifically target gay individuals.

“If you see guys walking hand-in-hand on the street, I would do nothing,” Galdenko said. “What can you do? No, there should not be a law that oppresses anybody. It’s life.”

Rajaetskaya said she agrees with Putin that the law is nothing to fear. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid with this,” she said. “It’s harmless.”

Former Russian Olympian Svetlana Zhurova, a speed skater and the ceremonial “mayor” of one of the athletes’ villages, said this week it doesn’t make sense for anyone to protest over gay rights at the games.

“We are all participants of the Games and we are going to applaud the straight people and the homosexuals just like the previous Olympic Games.”

But LGBT activists disagree. Human Rights First, an organization based in New York, has gathered anecdotes of LGBT Russians being attacked and persecuted on an increasing basis in the past year.

Human Rights First plans to send its own delegation to the Olympics, hoping to use spectator passes to distribute information about the law and the chapter in the Olympic charter, called Principle 6, that prohibits discrimination.

(Continued on page 2)

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