Vladimir Putin with facial makeup

Faster, Stronger, Just Not Gay

  • October 01, 2013
  • Ivan Steele

The law and politics of Sochi Winter Olympics

From its federal “gay propaganda” ban, 100-year bans on pride parades in Moscow and St. Petersburg to a ban on adoptions by gay couples and a proposal to remove children from gay parents, the Russian government is engaged in a veritable Orwellian crusade against its gay and lesbian citizens. As Russia prepares to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, its human rights abuses against the LGBT community have gained prominence and have become a test of integrity for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and world leaders alike.

Under the pretext of “protecting the children,” the Russian Duma nearly unanimously passed a “homosexual propaganda ban,” which outlaws all mention of non-traditional sexual relations and identities in any forum or medium accessible to minors. In a digital age, this constitutes a nearly absolute censorship of Russia’s LGBT community.   Punishment for violating the law ranges from hefty fines to imprisonment, and deportation for foreigners.

Despite its stated purpose of protecting minors, this ban is a status-based enactment divorced from any legitimate government interest. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the desire to “protect” children from information about homosexuality cannot be justified by the principle of best interests of the child. This ban is driven purely by anti-gay animus and President Putin’s political machinations. Its sole purpose is to scapegoat a segment of the society and gradually erase its existence from the national conscience. By enshrining discrimination based on sexual orientation in its laws, the Kremlin has advanced a social climate that is conducive to anti-gay violence – in breach of Russia’s domestic constitutional guarantees and its international human rights obligations.

The reach of Moscow’s laws extends far beyond the Olympics, Pride Parades, and political activism. Their immediate impact is a de facto criminalization of gay identity and the eradication of LGBT community’s freedom of expression and assembly. By singling out LGBT citizens and visitors for disfavored legal treatment, the Duma has legitimized discrimination by employers, service providers and teachers. Stripped of their right to freedom of expression, LGBT individuals are left powerless in the face of workplace discrimination and access to goods and services. The gay community’s right to media and access to information is effectively extinguished as the media are discouraged, by large fines, from reporting on LGBT issues.

Similarly, a ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians, along with a legislative proposal to take children away from gay parents has two main effects. It deprives the parents of their fundamental right to form and maintain a family unit, in contravention of Articles 17 and 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantee freedom from “arbitrary or unlawful interference with [person’s] privacy, family” and which define the family as the “fundamental group unit of society [which] is entitled to protection by society and the state.” While “family” is not defined in this treaty, the definition of the term should be consistent with our modern realities, which include same-sex families. Second, these laws ignore the best interests of the children involved, creating more victims of institutional homophobia.

Despite backroom assurances by unidentified Russian officials to IOC that the law cracking down on gay rights activism will not be enforced during the Sochi Olympic Games, the Russian sports minister remains adamant that the government will enforce anti-gay laws when it hosts international athletes and fans. Absent a quick repeal, the police will have no choice but to enforce the law. The “gay propaganda law” creates an unsafe climate for all gay or gay-friendly participants, visitors and locals.


An arrest or a deportation of a single Olympian, a local, or a visitor would taint the spirit of the Games and constitute a victory of prejudice over human rights and common decency.

A rainbow T-shirt or the presence of a Pride House in the Olympic Village could trigger fines and imprisonment. An arrest or a deportation of a single Olympian, a local, or a visitor would taint the spirit of the Games and constitute a victory of prejudice over human rights and common decency. The physical safety of foreigners is also a real concern, judging by the recent rash of anti-gay violence, emboldened by the “propaganda ban.”

The current Russian LGBT legislative purge parallels in significant ways South African apartheid policies and Adolf Hitler’s attempted ban on Jews and black people from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Just as it did in 1936, when its willful blindness boosted Hitler’s confidence and encouraged the atrocities to come, the IOC’s present inaction has the potential to incite further victimization of LGBT Russians and visitors. Despite the danger that these laws pose to athletes, spectators and the locals, the IOC clothes its silence in claims of political neutrality. As history has taught us, in situations of grave injustice and violations of basic human rights, neutrality translates into tacit support for the oppressor. Through its inaction, the IOC solidifies Vladimir Putin’s status at home as a strong leader, willing and able to stand up to the world in defense of his version of Russian values. That is the wrong message for the IOC to send.

Canada can also show its disapproval of Russia’s state-sponsored discrimination by easing the path for Russian LGBT asylum claimants to escape persecution. The toxic anti-gay climate in Russia has reached alarming levels that arguably engage the core principles of refugee protection.  Russian gays and lesbians, whose basic freedoms, lives and liberty are at risk, have a right to flee persecution and must be permitted to seek protection elsewhere, and not be returned to a place that deems them inhuman, and where they are in danger of judicial and extrajudicial sanctions.

While Canada, the United States, and the European Union must condemn Russia’s actions, only the IOC has the power to overcome the political roadblocks and the culture of inertia that have enveloped this controversy. Since no one can guarantee the safety and liberty of gay athletes, their allies and the attendees and since the world and the IOC cannot sit in silent witness of widespread violation of human rights, there are only two choices – the IOC should either ban Russia from participating in its own Winter Olympics or find another infrastructure-ready city to host the Games. Canada, the United States and other countries dedicated to the rule of law could boycott the Olympics, but such actions would punish athletes the most. Western pressure and diplomatic messages will only further Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic narrative and the demonization of the “other.” Boycotts are, therefore, the measures of last resort.

Rather than the individual countries, it is the IOC that has the duty and the power to effectively punish Russia for its ongoing human rights violations against its gay and lesbian citizens. If the IOC were to ban Russia from participating in its own Olympics, it would be a precise solution, rooted in precedent. As it banned Rhodesia from the 1972 Munich Games for its racist policies, South Africa’s apartheid government from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and Afghanistan from the 2000 Summer Games, the IOC needs to send an equally clear message of international opprobrium to Russia over its treatment of gays and lesbians. The IOC is duty bound by the Olympic Charter, which declares the practice of sport as a human right, whereby “every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

Russia is not alone in its treatment of gays and lesbians, as can be seen in the policies of Uganda, Zimbabwe, India, Nigeria and others. It is, however, the largest and most powerful country in this group. Russia’s political clout and international stature would make the IOC ban especially effective in sending a message to the future participants and host countries that the world is watchful and prepared to act whenever a country decides to make a class of persons a stranger to its laws.

Ivan SteeleAbout the Author

Ivan Steele is a gay lawyer who practises family and immigration law in Toronto.

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