OPINION | Russia’s antigay laws and the Olympics


The Olympic movement professes to be above politics; but politics has dogged the Olympic Games since 1936. Berlin won the bid for the summer Olympics; and then the Nazi regime came to power, in 1933.

The 1936 Games, the “Nazi Olympics,” became a great propaganda vehicle for Hitler. There was an international effort to boycott the Berlin Olympics — as there was in 2008, when the Summer Olympics took place in Beijing, China. In both 1936 and 2008, the torch relay was disrupted by protesters.

Following the 1936 Games, Hitler, who was still intent on conquering the world, pressed his plan to have the Olympics take place in Berlin forever. He commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Speer, to design a new venue in Nuremberg. Speer designed a 400,000-seat stadium that was never built.

Now the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are set for Sochi, Russia; and some gay activists are calling for a boycott after President Vladimir V. Putin signed a bill in June that outlaws “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships.” The propaganda measure is seen as part of a national crackdown on gays in Russia.

“The law is broad and vague, so that any teacher who tells students that homosexuality is not evil, any parents who tell their child that homosexuality is normal, or anyone who makes pro-gay statements deemed accessible to someone underage is now subject to arrest and fines,” actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein wrote in a July 21 op-ed for the New York Times. “Even a judge, lawyer or lawmaker cannot publicly argue for tolerance without the threat of punishment.”

Putin, according to Fierstein, “has declared war on homosexuals.”

A prominent photo on the front page of the Monday edition of the Times showed three young people who had been beaten by antigay protesters at a June rally in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The article stated: “Few gay people in Russia openly acknowledge their sexual orientation, and those who do are often harassed. When some gay people protested the propaganda law by kissing outside the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, police officers stood by and watched as the demonstrators were doused with water and beaten by antigay and religious supporters of the bill.”

Russia is actively engaged in attracting international events — the Winter Olympics, the World Cup, the World Expo (whatever that is) — but the Putin regime is spearheading an obnoxious crackdown on gay rights.

In his New York Times op-ed, Fierstein mentions that Putin also signed a law “allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or ‘pro-gay’ and detain them for up to 14 days. Contrary to what the International Olympic Committee says, the law could mean that any Olympic athlete, trainer, reporter, family member or fan who is gay — or suspected of being gay, or just accused of being gay — can go to jail.”

Russia certainly has created an intimidating atmosphere for gay and lesbian athletes and others. And anyone who protests this state of affairs, like the U.S. Olympians who raised black-gloved fists to protest the repression at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, could be clapped into a Russian prison cell.

Why is Putin leading this war on gays?

“Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia,” writes Fierstein. “Counting on the natural backlash against the success of marriage equality around the world and recruiting support from conservative religious organizations, Mr. Putin has sallied forth into this battle, figuring that the only opposition he will face will come from the left, his favorite boogeyman.”

And Fierstein adds, “Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered?”

Fierstein advocates that the International Olympic Committee “demand the retraction of these [antigay] laws under threat of boycott. In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”

Indeed, there should be an international pushback against Russia’s repression of gays. And we should take a hard look into our own backyard, regarding some backward behavior. In this regard, I would point out the effort by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s efforts to reinstate that state’s antisodomy law — the so-called “Crimes Against Nature” law. Cuccinelli is a candidate for Virginia governor, and has been playing to the bigoted base, in his benighted campaign promoting his warped views on sexuality.

Fortunately, last week U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts denied Cuccinelli’s request for a stay of a lower court decision that struck down Virginia’s antisodomy law.

We are proud that Minnesota became the 12th marriage equality state in the nation, when Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages into law on May 14, which took effect Aug. 1. The AJW congratulates Harvey Zuckman and Phil Oxman, who became the first Jewish same-gender couple to be legally married in Minnesota (see Page 7 of our print edition).

At the same time, we have to be vigilant against antigay repression, whether it’s occurring in Russia or Virginia. As Fierstein reminds us, these dirty and criminal acts start with one group, but soon the violence spreads to everyone.