A widening crackdown in Russia is raising questions about how best to keep athletes and fans who support gay rights safe at the Sochi Olympics this winter.
The Kremlin passed a law in late June 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.
It’s a trend the RCMP is taking seriously ahead of the winter Games. The Mounties are planning to hold a security briefing with athletes and other members of the Canadian Olympic team that will cover, among other things, "the recently signed law giving authorities the rights to detain tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being homosexual or pro-gay," RCMP Cpl. Laurence Trottier said in a statement.
The federal government has also updated its travel advisory for Russia, warning Canadians that "a federal law has been passed that prohibits public actions that are described as promoting homosexuality and non-traditional sexual relationships," and which could make pro-gay statements a criminal offence.
'Assurances' from the Kremlin
Mark Tewksbury, an Olympic medallist who publicly announced he was gay in 1998 and worked as chef de mission for the 2012 Canadian summer Olympic team, said in an email the new law means that "everyone will have to be more aware of the safety of the team."
But he added the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) is among the best "in terms of its team preparation."
The COC's executive director, Dimitri Soudas, said in a phone interview that Olympic officials have "received assurances from the highest levels of the Russian government" that the new anti-gay law "will not affect in any way those attending or taking part in the Games."
Still, it appears the new "gay propaganda" law has already been used against foreigners visting Russia. Four Dutch nationals were detained and fined on July 21 in the northwestern city of Murmansk, the Moscow Times reported. The group had been making a film on gay rights, the paper said.
'The athletes who go can make a statement, because they’re probably all very well protected by their countries.' —Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada
Human Rights Watch described a draft of the law as "regressive and discriminatory" and noted that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) "has been reluctant to criticize Russia" ahead of the Sochi Olympics, despite the passage of discriminatory laws that contravene the Olympic Charter.
The Charter states that everyone "must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind," and that any example of discrimination "with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."
Last week, the IOC released a statement in response to Russia's new law, saying: "It remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi. As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media."
Gay rights advocates say the issue is bigger than a single law. Earlier this month, the Kremlin banned the adoption of Russian children by gay couples in Russia, or in countries where gay marriage is recognized, such as Canada. Russian authorities have also drawn criticism from human rights groups in recent months for failing to prosecute violent attacks on LGBT people.
To boycott, or not
Such restrictions on gay rights in Russia have led to calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. American actor, playwright and gay rights activist Harvey Fierstein urged the IOC to pressure Russia to retract its new anti-gay laws, in an op-ed published in the New York Times last Sunday.
But Helen Kennedy, executive director of LGBT advocacy group Égale Canada, said Thursday she does not support boycotting the Games.
"I don’t think that that is going to do the LGBT community in Russia any good. In fact, there probably may be more backlash if a boycott does occur," she said in a phone interview. "The athletes who go can make a statement because they’re probably all very well protected by their countries."
Kennedy also said she would like to see the IOC review its charter "to be explicit and include sexual orientation" as a basis for discrimination, and in future "to have them do their homework before they go to countries where being gay is criminal."
Tewksbury said it was ironic that this year marks the first time former Canadian Olympians have marched in gay pride parades across the country. He likened the Sochi Games to those held in Beijing in 2008.
"Sadly, there are still many countries in the world where you can be arrested or even executed simply for being gay," he said. "The Olympics coming to Sochi has raised the awareness level of this horrible reality in a similar way that the Olympics going to China raised awareness of human rights issues."