The 2014 Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7. Russia will attempt to present itself on the international stage as a modern, democratic country. The truth, however, is far less pretty.
In June, the Russian parliament overwhelmingly passed a law barring “propaganda” about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. It is now illegal to speak in any public forum about being gay or lesbian as a normal expression of sexuality and family life. The very dark side of forcing LGBT Russians back into the closet is as predictable as it is dangerous. In the months since the law went into effect, human rights and LGBT advocates in Russia have documented an uptick in workplace discrimination, hateful attacks in the media and violence against gay men and women.
Homophobia in Russia is a Jewish issue. From a religious perspective, the principle of kvod habriot, human dignity, is violated by the vicious silencing of LGBT Russians.
The view through the lens of history is just as sharp. Fomenting hatred of a minority group to shift attention from a troubled economy and repressive government is a long-wielded political tool. Such scapegoating of a minority group is dangerous. More than a century ago, it led to pogroms against Jews. It would be a tragedy if Russian history were to repeat itself with a different minority group in the role of victim.
Jews also know the risk of the international community glossing over human rights violations by an Olympic host nation. In 1936, Germany hosted the Olympics. Hitler saw the Games as an opportunity to showcase the racist ideology of the Nazi regime. German Jewish athletes, with one token exception, were not allowed to participate. The world did not stand up against Hitler at the Olympics, and what happened in the next decade is the worst possible outcome of such indifference and cowardice.
This time must be different. Many typical forms of Olympic protest, such as a boycott or participant protests, are not possibilities. The International Olympic Committee is insistent, hypocritically and as always, that the Games are non-political. In fact, athletes are being warned not to express political opinions at the Games.
Thus, our actions to support LGBT Russians must be creative. One good option is to promote the Principle 6 campaign. Principle 6 is a provision of the Olympic Charter prohibiting discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A number of athletes have already signed-on to the Principle 6 campaign and will be affirming non-discrimination in words and attire. (The IOC can hardly complain when athletes voice their support of its own Charter’s provision.) Principle 6 clothing is available online for all of us, not just Olympians. Wear a Principle 6 T-shirt when you get together with friends to watch your favorite Olympic sport. Proceeds will support Russian LGBT organizations.
The most important thing we can do, however, is to tune in to this issue in the months after Sochi. In the international spotlight, there are things even the strongest government can’t get away with, but once the Olympics are over, LGBT Russians will need our support and watchdog eyes even more.