How Sochi Became the Gay Olympics

The Winter Games are serving as a barometer for the international politics of LGBT rights.
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A demonstrator holds a rainbow flag and the Russian national flag during a protest against Russia's anti-gay laws outside the Russian embassy in Berlin. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

In August 1982, 1,350 athletes from 12 countries gathered in San Francisco for the first-ever Gay Games. The Stonewall riots were more than a decade in the past; a year earlier, reports had surfaced about rare pneumonia and cancer afflicting homosexuals in New York and California—the first glimmers of what would later be called AIDS. Tom Waddell, a gay Olympian who would die of AIDS five years later, told The New York Times that he had organized the athletic competition to “pull the gay community together globally.”

At the time, that gay community found itself in vastly different circumstances around the world. As the activist Greg Day wrote in the program for the inaugural Gay Games, the U.S. had “much to learn from Holland, Norway and France where there are national laws protecting the rights of Gay and Lesbian citizens.” “Direct contact” with athletes from these nations, Day argued, would be enlightening for Americans living in a country where international visitors were often denied entry because of their sexual orientation.

Three decades later, sports are once again stirring us to take stock of gay rights around the world. Controversy over recent restrictions on sexual minorities in Russia—along with threats of terror attacks, concerns about environmental degradation, and protests by the Circassian diaspora—have arguably made the Sochi Winter Olympics the most geopolitically charged Games since the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the costliest Olympics in history may be remembered for marking a period in which gay rights aren’t so much advancing globally as expanding in certain parts of the world while regressing or languishing in others.

As 6,000 athletes from 85 countries gather in Sochi, the global gay-rights divide will be unmistakable.

“The status of LGBT rights globally is schizophrenic,” Jessica Stern, executive director of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, tells me. “You don’t see a single trend anywhere you look.”

***

When Russia was awarded the Sochi Games, in 2007, the environmental and security concerns that still plague the $51-billion project swiftly cropped up. But gay rights only came to the fore in the summer of 2013, when the Russian government, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, banned the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” around children—making it more difficult for gay activists to operate and, rights groups allege, fueling a rise in anti-gay violence in the country. Around the same time, President Vladimir Putin signed another law prohibiting gay and lesbian couples in foreign countries from adopting Russian children. Putin has since declared that gays attending the Olympics should feel "at ease” (so long as they “leave the children in peace”), but that’s done little to prevent Sochi from becoming a battleground for gay rights. The mayor of Sochi saying there were no gay people in his city didn’t help, either.

In perhaps the most provocative rebuke to Russia’s limits on LGBT rights, President Obama has included three openly gay athletes—Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, and Brian Boitano—in the U.S. Olympic delegation, while skipping the Games himself. Gay Olympic athletes have expressed outrage as well; the Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, for instance, has vowed to “rip on [Putin’s] ass” after competing and possibly flash an oblique six-finger salute in reference to “Principle Six,” an anti-discrimination clause in the Olympic Charter. In this climate, and in light of the International Olympic Committee’s prohibition against political statements, everything from American Apparel hoodies to the soundtrack at speed-skating competitions could serve as platforms for subtle protest. Then there’s the solution proposed by Saturday Night Live: an all-heterosexual Team USA figure-skating squad:

The laws against homosexuality that have recently made international headlines aren’t necessarily new, Stern says, but they are “getting more attention today because of the level of progress that we’ve seen in other parts of the world.”

“What’s unique about this moment,” she adds, “is the convergence of court decisions and proposed legislation that go above and beyond in their efforts to repress LGBT people and LGBT-rights activism.”

***

The Sochi Olympics come during a dizzying period in the history of the global gay-rights movement. Last year witnessed several significant advances for activists. In the U.S., nine states legalized same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Brazil, Britain, France, New Zealand, and Uruguay all legalized gay marriage as well (just this week, Northern Cyprus repealed Europe’s last sodomy law). Questioned about gay priests, Pope Francis famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” It was enough for one activist to dub 2013 “the gayest year in gay history”—or, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put it, “the year LGBT rights went global.”

But going global hasn’t necessarily meant going in the direction gay-rights advocates would like. In recent months, India’s Supreme Court has reinstated a ban on gay sex (in one fell swoop doubling, by one estimate, the number of gay people in the world who can be imprisoned for their sexuality) and Australia’s High Court has overturned gay-marriage legislation. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the authorities have reportedly begun arresting people under a new law that outlaws gay advocacy and punishes gay marriage with up to 14 years in prison. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has expressed opposition to a proposed bill meting out life imprisonment for gays—only to characterize homosexuality as an “abnormality” and lesbianism as a product of “sexual starvation.” We know the story in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has anointed himself the leader of an international conservative counteroffensive against the West’s “genderless and infertile” liberalism.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. More

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy and a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.
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