The Commonwealth Blog

Russian Culture, the LGBT community, and the Olympics

Feb 19, 2014 @ 9:12 AM by jzipperer

By Zoë Byrne

In light of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, President Putin’s anti-LGBT laws are definitely not the first of its kind of oppression against the LGBT community in Russia. A significant portion of the governments of Russian cities and provinces had already enacted their own versions of suppressive legislation back in 2012. The motive behind the passage of such laws seems to be an inherent disdain for and belief that any discussions of LGBT issues in front of minors will automatically be propaganda that promotes a type of lifestyle of which many Russians are vehemently opposed. This belief that the LGBT community has complete control over whom they love and are attracted to ignites a long-standing debate among many about whether sexual orientation is something people are either born with or choose. On the other side are those who believe that it should be an individual’s right to a personal opinion on how to live his or her life the way that feels most comfortable, rather than a government imposing laws restricting the rights of their citizens to live completely free. However, Russia remains a country desiring to control its citizens’ lives and opinions – reminiscent of its communist past – and reminds Americans how fortunate we are to have the rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, that we have regardless of whether or not we agree with each other.

The lack of freedom for the LGBT community in Russia has caused many such individuals to hide their true identities due to their fears and threats of losing jobs, homes and even possibly their lives in the event of violence. Besides the anti-propaganda law, some other restrictive Russian laws against the LGBT community include: an adoption ban for Russian children by same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples who reside in countries where same-sex marriage is legal, a ban against making any statements that support homosexuality, and a law that gives the Russian police permission to arrest any foreign visitor or temporary citizen they might suspect is homosexual or supportive of homosexuality and keep them for up to two weeks.

Targeting the LGBT community, especially during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, is part of what many see as President Putin’s remolding of the Russian government along authoritarian lines and, critics fear, an effort to distract Russia from focusing on economic issues and other policy failings. For people wishing to publicly demonstrate their support and advocacy for the LGBT community in Sochi, violations range anywhere from making televised statements to wearing pro-LGBT paraphernalia; punishments for committing these violations include arrest, two-week incarceration, and fines as high as $3,100.

Though Russia claims the laws will not be enforced during the Olympics, the truth remains very hazy, because Putin’s laws and policies, as well as Russia’s as a whole, treat homosexuality as the same as pedophilia, encouraging the fear that any demonstrations of support will influence Russian children to possibly defy the conservative social culture by accepting same-sex couples. In an attempt to allow people to protest, if they choose to do so, yet still muffle LGBT supporters, Russia has made it extremely difficult to obtain this right by only allowing such protests to happen in a village that is seven miles from Sochi called Khost. An additional and challenging hurdle to attaining this right will be whether Russia’s Ministry of Interior and Federal Security Service decides to grant the permits needed, as proclaimed by Russian law, to those wishing to protest. The uncertainty of whether the anti-LGBT laws will truly not be enforced or imposed, as Russia keeps claiming, makes it extremely challenging for those who support the LGBT community to watch the games peacefully and enjoyably with the knowledge that the host country does not respect all of its citizens.

RELATED: "From Russia Without Love: The 2014 Winter Olympics and Human Rights in Russia," a February 4, 2014, program at The Commonwealth Club of California.