Two Canadian Olympians marching in Vancouver's Pride Parade today say they support the gay community and hope to spread a message of tolerance and acceptance in light of Russia's anti-gay laws and the upcoming 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
Alpine skier Mike Janyk and snowboarder Mercedes Nicoll, both members of Canada's 2006 and 2010 Olympic teams, joined more than 100 floats that wound their way through Vancouver's downtown and the West End.
Janyk said he marched in Sunday's parade to show "solidarity between the Olympic athletes and this great community" and likened the spirit of the Pride Parade to the Olympic Games.
"That’s what the Olympics are all about. They are there to have fun, to show the great side of humanity that sport brings out and to support anyone from any race or sexual orientation," he said. "It’s about being happy, enjoying your life and competing in sport, for us."
Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut says the coming together of COC and Pride is a reminder that sport is open to everyone, regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.
Anti-gay law in Russia passed
But anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia seem to suggest otherwise.
In late June, the Kremlin passed a law that makes it illegal to spread "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations" to minors, under threat of steep fines.
Many critics of the new law point to it as evidence that homophobia is on the rise in Russia. Violent attacks on gay-rights activists in the country have become "frequent," according to Amnesty International.
The International Olympic Committee said last week that it had received assurances "from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the games." It pledged to ensure there would be no discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media in Sochi.
But Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko contradicted the IOC, warning it won't allow gay activism at the Games and that foreign competitors and spectators at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will have to abide by a new Russian law banning "gay propaganda."
Defiant Pride supporters
Russia's new law has provoked a strong reaction from Canada's gay community and stoked fears regarding the safety of athletes and fans who support gay rights at the Sochi Olympics.
On Sunday, at least one marcher wore a T-shirt and hoisted a sign featuring a photoshopped image of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing blue eye shadow and blush, while another marcher danced and held a sign that read "Love Russians."
There have also been growing calls by activists to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
"I can’t see how we can send our athletes, how we can send Canadians to a country that says we’re going to lock you up for being alive. If you even say 'I'm gay,' you could be thrown in jail. It’s a country that seems to be further into attacking human rights," said B.C. NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert, who is openly gay.
"Many people, as you can see here in Pride, are saying 'no way.' We’re standing for equality. We’re saying to Russia: 'You've got to back down and respect your people's right to be who they are. You've got to respect the international community's rights to be in your country safely.' I can't see how the Olympics could go ahead in that context."
Janyk, the Olympian, said he didn't think a boycott would be effective.
"A boycott never solves anything. That’s running away. Boycott just hurts the people that don't go," he said.
"The great thing about the Olympics is that it goes into these countries that may not have the same rights that we enjoy here in Canada. If we get to go there and show our love and support for all that, then that's just a great aspect."
As many as 600,000 to 700,000 people were expected to attend the 35th annual Vancouver Pride Parade this year.