Ice Skaters Plan to Stand Against Russia's Gay Law at Olympics
With the International Olympic Committee's stance on the issue unclear, athletes are concerned about how their behavior will be received.
For one speed skater, making a statement means wearing a rainbow pin as he darts across the ice. For one figure skater, it means just being himself, flamboyant costumes and all, and having his husband there to cheer him on.
Both know they may be arrested under Russia's vaguely defined ban on so-called gay "propaganda."
But the speed skater, New Zealand's Blake Skjellerup, and the figure skater, American Johnny Weir, are defying calls by some activists and athletes to boycott February's Olympic Games in Sochi. They are among the competitors and supporters who say the best place to take a stand against homophobia is at the Games itself.
With just months to go before the Olympic cauldron is lit, the question of how best to show support for gay rights has come to the fore. What will be allowed by the Russian authorities -- and by the International Olympic Committee, itself -- remains an open question.
Skjellerup, 28, is the only openly gay athlete who is currently confirmed for participation in Sochi. He plans to wear a rainbow pin, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, to show his support.
"I was in the closet for far too long and it wasn't a very fun time at all. I'm not going to change the person that I am just for the sake of some rules existing in one country," he told the U.S. news site Huffington Post.
Skjellerup's stance is supported by Russia's most prominent gay-rights activist, Nikolai Alekseyev, who said he was ready to distribute pins from the first Moscow pride parade in 2006 to any interested athletes. The Russian capital has since banned pride parades for 100 years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the ban on so-called gay "propaganda" in June. The law, widely interpreted to be aimed at homosexuals, criminalizes the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
Individuals who violate the law face fines up to 100,000 rubles (about $3,000), while organizations can be fined up to 1 million rubles (about $30,000). Foreign citizens violating the law must also pay the fines, face automatic deportation, and can be jailed for up to 15 days.
Dmitry Kiselev, the director of the leading state-run TV channel Rossia 1, said of gays during a recent program: "Their hearts, in case of an automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
The Russian Interior Ministry says mounting fears are "groundless" and "far-fetched," but that the law will be enforced during the Olympics.
He said that he did not plan to wear a pin or wave a flag, but said his presence in Sochi was a statement in itself.
"As far as outward displays, should I be competing in the Olympics, my husband, his entire family, and my entire family will be there as a unit, supporting me -- and I think that that is a beautiful statement to make," he said. "For an immigrant Russian family living in the United States to support their gay son's husband, it's something very modern and something very new, and it's definitely a statement. I don't have to wear a pin to show the LGBT community that I am in support of them and that I'm with them."
But Weir also fears he may not be above punishment, or could be targeted for his social-media presence. A photo posted on the Tumblr account of his husband, Victor Voronov, shows the couple kissing on Red Square.
In an e-mail, an IOC spokesperson referenced Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states, "No kind of demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." The spokesperson added, "That said, the IOC would always treat each case individually and take a sensible approach."
Activists and Western officials say they will be watching the IOC closely.
"To be an openly straight person is not a political statement and is not a religious expression. It's simply a person being who they are, fundamentally, as a human being," openly gay U.S. congressman Mark Takano (Democrat-California) said.
"And I would say that's true of people who are openly gay, openly lesbian, openly bisexual, [and] openly transgender. To somehow impute that as political expression, whereas being openly straight is somehow not -- this is an absurdity."
The uncertainty about how both Russia and the IOC will respond to shows of LGBT support has even led to some creative suggestions on Twitter for a "Sochi salute" that will not be punishable. One user suggested that athletes should make an arc shape with their hands to reference the rainbow.
Another Twitter user said that regardless of the actions of either Russia or the IOC, Sochi looks destined to become the "gayest games ever."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.