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The Sochi struggle for LGBTI rights

Gay Rights

In Russia, a 'gay propaganda' law was passed in mid-2013 which criminalizes any public advocacy or campaigning for LGBTI rights.


There is no question that the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) community has seen some great strides towards equality in recent years; the pace of change has been remarkable in many areas. A combination of factors has led to these developments, including strong political leadership from Barack Obama and others, and the campaigning efforts of activist groups. Most significant of all is the increased confidence and visibility of LGBTI people themselves, more and more of whom are refusing to deny who they are to accommodate the prejudices of others. In fact, research shows that the single biggest factor in determining an individual’s support of gay marriage and gay rights is knowing an LGBTI person. As Harvey Milk once said, the greatest political act of a gay person is simply to ‘come out’.

But gains in Western Europe and parts of the US have not been mirrored elsewhere; in many countries they have generated a homophobic backlash. Religious and political leaders are using LGBTI people as pawns in highly cynical ‘moral’ crusades against what is termed Western decadence – a useful way to deflect public attention in these countries away from gross political mismanagement, corruption and the failure to provide their populations with basic essentials such as food and shelter.

The IOC has taken to criticizing world leaders who have spoken out on the issue, while defending the arrests of LGBTI activists during the opening days of the Olympics

In Russia, a so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law was passed in mid-2013 which criminalizes any public advocacy or campaigning for LGBTI rights and effectively drives the community underground . In Nigeria, a truly odious law has just been enacted which increases the already harsh criminal penalties against same-sex activity and, in what is surely designed to encourage a witch-hunt, requires people to ‘turn in’ any gay person they know within 24 hours or face prison themselves.

Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games, which got underway last weekend in Sochi, has served as a focal point in efforts to campaign against the state-enforced homophobia of the Russian regime. Calls for a boycott of the Games failed, however, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to hold Russia accountable, despite the Olympic Charter stating that there should be human rights and non-discrimination for all. The IOC has even taken to criticizing world leaders who have spoken out on the issue, while defending the arrests of LGBTI activists during the opening days of the Olympics.

‘In many other countries that decriminalized homosexuality, there was much campaigning around the issue leading up to the change, but this was not so in Russia,’ says Vladimir Dotsenko, a Russian LGBTI campaigner now living and working in Ireland. ‘Instead, decriminalization came about in 1993 to facilitate Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe. But there was no attempt to educate or explain to the Russian public what it was about.’

Dotsenko describes a ‘systematic attack on what is seen in Russia as the Western system of human rights values, with homophobia and xenophobia used to invoke nationalistic, imperialist sentiments’. In this broader context of seeking to reassert a strong and powerful Russia against Western ideas and influence, demonizing LGBTI people has proved an easy and popular tool.

For those on the outside wishing to offer constructive help to Russia’s beleaguered LGBTI community, Dotsenko is a firm believer in political pressure and lobbying.

Holland became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry in 2001

‘Concerned citizens in the West need to keep the pressure up at a political level. The issue needs to be raised with members of parliament, and politicians of the highest rank should be constantly raising the topic with their Russian counterparts at meetings of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is still a member. The story continues after the Olympics.’

Boris Dittrich of Human Rights Watch, who serves as the Advocacy Director of their LGBTI programme, was leader of the Democrats 66 (D66) party in Holland in the 1990s and negotiated the marriage equality commitment in what was known as the ‘Purple Coalition’. As a result, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry in 2001.

‘As a Dutchman, I feel embarrassed that the Dutch King and Queen and the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, [attended] the opening ceremony of the Winter Games,’ says Dittrich. ‘Clearly, trade relations are deemed more important than human rights.’

Dittrich also sees the homophobic crackdown in Russia as a political ploy by Vladimir Putin. ‘He uses his anti-gay stand to distinguish himself from Obama and the rest of the West. The Russian Orthodox Church is very influential and Putin relies on this conservative base to cling to power.’

And with the battle for marriage equality becoming a central issue in so many nations, what are the lessons from a country that has had the reform in place for nearly 13 years?

‘In the Dutch case, it proved to be important to find allies outside the LGBTI community [parents, other human rights groups] to speak out. I also mobilized many Dutch celebrities who supported the proposal publicly. We briefed the media and focused on the separation between Church and State, and always highlighted the freedom of religion,’ explains Dittrich.

But even in what are considered progressive societies, cultural and societal homophobia persists. For many, an Irish drag queen named Panti Bliss summed up perfectly the oppressive effects of this continuing prejudice in our culture in a speech that has now been seen by over 250,000 people and which has earned the praise of celebrities such as Madonna and Stephen Fry.

The world is now watching Russia, thanks to the Sochi games, but the indifference of the Olympic Committee and the homophobia of many of the world’s politicians and societies mean that the struggle for full equality must and will continue.


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