This story has moved like an intercontinental ballistic missile. Target: Russia’s law that began the persecution, imprisonment, vicious violence against, and murder by thugs of LGBTQ people in Russia. The international gay community retaliated by putting its finger to the button and it is not going to back down.
The bomb, however, is a dud.
Both sides are looking for a fight; itching for one. But the pushing and shoving hasn’t escalated into the full-out diplomatic brawl over human rights that everyone seemed to be expecting, and it’s not going to.
The escalation began in 2006 – a year before Sochi was chosen by the International Olympic Committee to host these 2014 Winter Games. That was when the Ryazan region banned “propaganda of homosexuality among minors,” making “promoting homosexuality among juveniles” punishable by fines of up to 20000 rubles ($608). Putin saw an opportunity to shore up his support by demonizing a minority, and here we are.
Is this the first viral war? Is social media so powerful now that it can bring a country to its knees – force it to surrender a hideous law against its own people? Can it compel the iron-fisted Putin to rescind the law? He’s already fiddling with it – changing a word here and a word there – in an effort to make it more palatable. And the campaign definitely made the official Olympic sponsors sit up and take notice. Who says boycotts don’t have an effect anymore?
The gay community will accept nothing less than having the law repealed, because this is about more than Russia. This is about gay rights, and human rights, in Nigeria, Uganda, Tel Aviv, Peru and everywhere on Earth where there are laws that make people of all kinds illegal. However, after the Games are over and the diplomatic stage is packed away, western governments will move on to bigger issues with Russia, like money and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there will continue to be a lot of attention-grabbing moments around the LGBTQ story.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is following other world leaders in skipping the games. His office points out that this isn’t unusual — he only went to Vancouver because Canada was the host country — but his decision may also have something to do with terrorist threats. In fact, if anything were still to shut down the games on short notice it would be the real possibility of a terrorist attack.
His decision almost certainly has nothing to do with gay rights — Harper isn’t exactly the strongest advocate for loud and proud Canadians. But who needs Harper when you’ve got Brian Burke?
You can bet a Sidney Crosby golden goal that the Calgary Flames general manager will be bull-dog blunt, if asked, about the deplorable plight of gay Russians. He is going to Sochi as the American Olympic hockey team’s director of player personnel. But he’s also going for something much more. Burke is ready for a gay rights fight in Sochi, and, as all of Canada knows, Burke packs a punch.
In 2009, he drew the nation’s attention by speaking out as the father, the proud father, of his openly gay son.
A few months later, his boy – a young hockey player – was killed in a car accident, and since then Burke and his family have continued to carry the pride flag on his behalf. “We have marched in pride parades, spoken at events and donated time and energy in support of young LGBT people,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated.
Burke is the strongest and most listened-to advocate and ally on behalf of gay rights in Canada, bar none. He’s hardly about to back down from Putin. On the other hand, yesterday we had Canadian IOC member Dick Pound taking the moral low road. “You have the chardonnay folks, sipping, saying, ‘This is an issue for me. Sip. And I want you to go over there and be my soldiers. Sip. I’ll be watching it on television with another glass of chardonnay,'” he told USA Today. “It’s kind of cheap.”
You’d know, Dick.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King has said that gay rights are the civil rights movement of the 21st-century. In days, this tough-as-nails gay icon, this inspiration for women’s rights, the first of the badass ladies on the court, is going to be leading what’s being called the “Billie Jean Delegation” into Putin’s Olympic stadium, whether Dick Pound likes it or not.
Putin is certainly aware that this is not to be taken lightly. The six-member group is President Barack Obama’s official delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies. There will be no current or former presidents or vice-presidents attending. This is Obama’s in-your-face, overhead slam at Putin on the world’s centre court. See if NBC cameras can cut away from the shot of Billie Jean in the stands representing the President of the United States of America. You can bet she’ll be wearing a rainbow ribbon.
She’ll be asked about breaking Russia’s law. Because that’s what she’ll be doing by her mere presence. She’ll not follow any carefully crafted diplomatic made-for-TV script when she answers, if you know anything about Billie Jean’s life.
How can Putin retaliate? Arrest the Billie Jean King if she gets too close to the children?
But it’s really up to the athletes.
Their governing body is useless – always has been, always will be. It still hangs onto the ludicrous lie that the Olympics industry is not a place for politics. It is where the youth of the world come together — except for Russia’s gay youth, of course.
The IOC, as bloated, greedy, and corrupt as any czarist court, won’t do anything. Pound’s not even the worst of them — take, for instance, the Italian member who likened the US delegation to political terrorism. That is how heated this has become. Certainly the most outrageous quote so far came from the mayor of Sochi, who told the BBC that his city has no gay people. Maybe someone should take him to its gay club.
Various former and current gay athletes, while speaking out against the law, have continued to support the Sochi games. They’re better athletes than thinkers. Their reasoning is common coin: The competitors have dedicated their entire lives to get to the Olympics, so boycotting them would be unfair. What they shamefully forget is that gay Russians are losing their lives — speaking of unfair. And it has become even more difficult to excuse these athletes for missing the point since Putin declared that Russia must be purged of homosexuals.
So what might gay athletes and their supporters still do to at least partially redeem these Olympics? A rumour circulates that some will make a statement when they enter the stadium by wearing rainbow ribbons. One brave Russian protestor has already been detained for unfurling a Pride Flag at the Olympic relay. And there’s no telling what other acts of courage the likes of Burke and King might inspire in their colleagues.
But with the Olympics only days away, the biggest story has already played out on the world’s political stage. It’s pretty much over. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen now, and mine is: Not much. The spectacle will unfold as it always has. We’ll hear a lot about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Broadcasters will broadcast from inside safe and secure arenas. Putin will take every measure to ensure he isn’t embarrassed. The IOC will protect, at all costs, its stage show, and the media will look away from the horror of Putin’s Russia.
It won’t be the athletes of the world who stand up for what is right. It will be Russia’s LGBTQ community who take the risk, during the games, and for a very long time after.