Commentary: Why boycotting Winter Olympics in anti-gay Russia isn't the right move

In response to calls for a boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics due to Russia's anti-gay legislation, the International Olympics Committee released a statement promising to "work to ensure" a discrimination-free Olympics.
In response to calls for a boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics due to Russia's anti-gay legislation, the International Olympics Committee released a statement promising to "work to ensure" a discrimination-free Olympics. (LEON NEAL / AFP/Getty Images)

It's clear from the decades-long gay rights movement here in the United States that gays and lesbians have always changed hearts and minds and forced public policy changes by being counted, not by sitting it out.


The gay community here has won key rights, including marriage in more than a dozen states like Maryland, not by refusing to participate in the political and legal systems that have discriminated against them, but by getting smart and using those systems to their own advantage.

Along the way, gay and lesbian individuals have won over countless allies and changed the positions of some of their most skeptical peers by coming out and sharing their stories, not by hiding or keeping quiet.


Russia is not the United States, but the legacy of action that has provided victories for those seeking change here should not be disregarded by those seeking change there.

Progress for gays and lesbians has always been about standing up, from the "SILENCE = DEATH" logo of the uppity pro-gay ACT UP group in the face of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, to the "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" mantra of the radicalized Queer Nation in the early 1990s.

People being loud and proud is exactly what Russia is trying to stamp out among its citizens, and there's a reason.

One of the most controversial laws in question bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and imposes fines for providing information about being gay to kids or holding gay pride rallies. Foreigners and Russians alike can be arrested under the laws.

Anti-gay factions in Russia appear to have been emboldened by their government's policies, posing as gay men on social media websites, arranging meetings with actual gay Russians and then holding them hostage while abusing and humiliating them.

At a time when the mere acknowledgement that one is gay is likely to bring state sanctions and torture in Russia, the decision to forgo the Sochi Olympics would be nothing but a missed opportunity to stare the bullies down and stand on the side of the oppressed.

Attending would be to say we are here, we are queer (and allied), and we aren't scared of you thugs.

The real question is this: How can we most effectively incorporate proactive protest into our active participation in the Winter Olympics?

Already, gay activists around the world are drawing media attention to Russia's atrocious treatment of gays and lesbians through a boycott of Russian vodkas, including Stolichnaya, a soft target and a company that outside of Russia has already denounced the country's anti-gay affronts to human and civil liberties.

The attention that effort has drawn has been hugely important. Dan Savage, the gay activist and writer who is behind other masterful pro-gay efforts like the It Gets Better Campaign, is also behind the vodka dump.

Savage knows a little something about creating cultural flashpoints, and he was wise to point the finger at Russia's prized booze. While we can also push the International Olympic Committee, the Obama administration, the U.S. Olympic Committee (which won't be boycotting) and the United Nations to do the right thing and speak out in a forthright way against Russia's policies, those arguments are better left to the policy wonks. Vodka is an easier target for the everyday person to wrap his or her head around.


But there is another cultural target, and it's more important than Stolichnaya.

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC, which holds broadcasting rights for the Olympics, was asked about Russia's anti-gay policies this weekend and gave what was a likely well-intentioned but ultimately weak-kneed answer.

"We will address it if it becomes an issue," he reportedly said. "If it is still law and it is impacting any part of the Olympic Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it."

Given the widely-circulated images of Russian gays and lesbians being beaten and abused in recent months, the head of the organization preparing itself to lead international coverage of the games should already be well aware that it is already an issue.

The network's coverage should not depend at all on whether Russia's laws become "an issue" that physically disrupts foreign athletes' ability to compete. The laws are already on the minds of many athletes and countless viewers around the world, to say nothing of the Russians whose lives they are destroying.

But apparently Lazarus doesn't get that. Or he misspoke. Or he hedged his bets and aired on the side of offending some queers instead of angering President Vladimir Putin.

Lazarus needs to be called out, again and again, until he puts forward a solid plan to address the Russian bigotry.

The television network should make it a priority to highlight the stories of gay and lesbian Olympians who are willing to talk about how the country's laws have affected their own experiences in Sochi.

It should be prepared to delve into the realities of those gay and lesbian Russians who are currently living in the same landscapes and amid the same cultural atmosphere that NBC will undoubtedly be providing sweeping views of.

It should be prepared to investigate how Russia's policies have impacted young athletes in the country who identify as gay or lesbian.

It should find those Russians, straight or gay, who are willing to stand up in opposition to the country's policies.


In the lead up to the games, gay activists should be working to find ways to force the network's hand – and the hands of the rest of the international media -- if they fail to tell these stories and to perform their journalistic duty to contextualize the games in light of the country's failings.

The Olympics have always been about athletes who have trained their entire lives to show the world what they can do. Jesse Owens did so at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to Adolf Hitler's chagrin, and none of the world's current athletes, particularly the gay and lesbian ones, should be deprived of the opportunity to put it to Putin in 2014.

The gay rights movement has always been about people of all stripes standing up and showing the world that they, too, count. Don't boycott the Sochi games. Go loud, go proud, and go gay.

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