We are at the starting line for the Sochi Winter Olympics. While athletes from around the world prepare to compete for gold medals, activists are already racing to preserve basic rights and freedoms for Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
You know the athletes who will soon compete in Sochi--now meet some of Russia's activists who are fighting for human dignity in a country where a campaign is under way to demonize the LGBT community.
To be an Olympic host, a government must commit to the principle that "any form of discrimination ...is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." As guardian of the Olympic flame, the International Olympic Committee, which oversees the games, is bound by its own charter to uphold these "Fundamental Principles of Olympism" and to "act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement."
Over the past two years, Russia has rolled out repressive laws imposing new restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and aiming to taint some non-profit organizations as "foreign agents." It has carried out "inspection" raids on independent groups and locked up high-profile activists. This crackdown has been completely at odds with the Olympic ideal of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."
In 2013, the crackdown expanded to include a new anti-gay law banning "propaganda" among minors that would assert equality between "nontraditional" (read: LGBT) and "traditional" sexual relationships. The law applies to all types of media, blatantly violates Russia's obligations to guarantee non-discrimination and respect for freedom of expression, and contradicts the Olympic charter's principle of nondiscrimination. The IOC and many national Olympic committees have taken the unprecedented step of warning their athletes not to speak out in favor of gay rights or in any way to signal concern about discrimination and other rights abuses in Russia.
Meanwhile, homophobic rhetoric--including by Russian government officials and celebrities and on state television--accompanied debate about the law. In this poisonous atmosphere, violence and harassment of LGBT people and activists have escalated. Organized nationalist groups have entrapped and attacked gay men across Russia, and even filmed and publicized these attacks, with no fear of being brought to justice.
The Sochi Games will be the most expensive Olympics ever, but will they also be the Olympics that come at the greatest cost to human dignity and equality? Or will the world stand up against hatred and discrimination?
Meet some of the courageous Russians who are leading the fight against the anti-gay law and policies--despite constant threats against them.
Konstantin Yablotskiy is a competitive figure skater who won a gold medal at the Cologne Gay Games in 2010. He is co-president of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, the only organization dedicated to supporting gay athletes in Russia. The Federation will stage its first "Russian Open Games" to celebrate LGBT athletes from February 26 to March 2 in Moscow. Yablotskiy has a PhD in analytical chemistry and teaches science to children with disabilities. Speaking about the Sochi Winter Olympics, he said: "Probably it's our last chance to try to change this situation, to change attitudes of Russian society, to show people that we are not marginal sodomites. We are normal people who have their normal lives, who can do sports and win medals."
Maria Kozlovskaya is a St. Petersburg-based lawyer who has put her life on the line to help defend LGBT victims of hate crimes. She works for the Russian LGBT Network, an umbrella group of nearly five dozen regional organizations that document abuses against LGBT people in Russia, including homophobic murders and other violent crimes, and employment and healthcare discrimination. She describes the anti-gay "propaganda" law as a "green light for nationalistic groups to make violence against LGBT people."
Elvina Yuvakaeva loves to snowboard at Sochi ski resorts and took up badminton because she wanted to compete in the Gay Games, which are typically held in summer months. She is co-president of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, which includes Olympians and Paralympians among its more than 800 members. Following a meeting with IOC President Thomas Bach in November 2013, she said, "We fear that after the Olympics and Paralympics, when the attention of the world decreases, homophobic repression will become even worse, with, for example, the reintroduction of the bill to remove children from gay parents."
Anastasia Smirnova is the spokesperson for a coalition of Russian LGBT rights groups. She and activists saw the need and opportunity to stand up publicly for equality at a time when Russia's homophobic laws sharply contrasted with its role of Olympic host, and duty to openly welcome all the world's communities. Fluent in English, Smirnova is a brave face of a movement under grave attack. "Ours is a campaign for equality," she says. "It is a campaign that promotes the idea of human dignity for LGBT people in Russia--but it is not a campaign against the country."
Masha Gessen is a leading writer on Russia and long-time gay rights activist in the country. The Wall Street Journal praised her 2012 biography of President Vladimir Putin, "The Man Without a Face," as an "unflinching indictment of the most powerful man in Russia." She recently moved her family, including three children, out of Russia, after the authorities threatened to pass a law removing children from families with gay parents. She has denounced Russia's anti-gay propaganda law as "part and parcel of a greater crackdown on civil society, which includes the laws on foreign agents, laws expanding the definition of espionage and high treason, and laws paralyzing the work of NGOs."
Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.