With Olympics underway, Russia's gay-rights record leaves some Marylanders uneasy

Demonstrators march during a protest against a controversial anti-gay and blasphemy laws signed by the Russian president outside of the Russian Consulate in Thessaloniki on Feb. 7, 2014.
Demonstrators march during a protest against a controversial anti-gay and blasphemy laws signed by the Russian president outside of the Russian Consulate in Thessaloniki on Feb. 7, 2014. (AFPGetty Images)

When Maryland first lady Catherine Curran O'Malley sits down to watch the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, she'll feel a little uneasy.

Like many Marylanders and others around the world, the start of the games has left O'Malley wondering what more can be done for Russia's gay community, and what watching the games means. They wonder whether watching condones Russia's anti-gay record. Conversely, is not watching a protest? What can people do to support the athletes?


O'Malley, who has spent time in Russia and admires its culture and people, will watch — but not without reflection.

"People are born who they are," said O'Malley, a professed anti-bullying and gay-rights advocate, on a recent evening in the governor's mansion in Annapolis. "I'd like to see a more tolerant world."


Olympic competitions began this week in the southern Russian city of Sochi. For months leading up to the games, there was talk among gay-rights advocates of boycotting the Olympics altogether, going with rainbow flags in hand, or flexing economic influence by refusing to buy Stolichnaya vodka or support sponsors like Coke and Visa.

Activists were incensed by an anti-gay-propaganda law passed last summer that bans communicating to children about homosexuality in a positive way. They say the law has emboldened some to harass and attack lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Russian citizens, and is being used to muzzle Olympic athletes from speaking out about the situation.

President Barack Obama has expressed concern, and his appointment of multiple openly gay athletes to the U.S. delegation to the games was widely seen as a direct rebuke of the controversial law. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, said Friday that the games were not the place to debate gay-rights issues.

But for many, gay and straight, the games present questions.

"It was kind of theoretical before, but now the games are on, they're here," said Eric Neffke, 38, an art librarian at Enoch Pratt Free Library who is straight and supports gay rights. He said he has struggled over whether to watch.

"As a hockey fan, I want to see the hockey games, but it's hard to bring myself to actually watch the Olympics or give any attention to it because of everything that's going on with the anti-gay laws," said Neffke, a Lake Evesham resident.

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest gay-rights organization, said she and her wife, Pam Bennett, had the watch-or-not debate over dinner Thursday night.

"We were like, 'Are you watching? Well, are you watching?'" Evans said with a laugh.

Ultimately, they decided to watch, she said, on the notion that most of the athletes are "good, kind, loving people who support LGBT rights" and have nothing to do with Russia's laws.

"Why should they not get the attention?" Evans asked.

Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, member of the Maryland legislature's LGBT Caucus, and a hockey and curling fan, echoed that thought.

"There is really, truly something to be said for those athletes who are standing up for us at the Olympics, and there are quite a few," he said.


O'Malley, a District Court judge, said that "nobody in a just society could ever condone" an edict like Russia's anti-propaganda law. But she said she also doesn't want to send the wrong message that Russia is alone in its need for progress — or that all Russians feel the same way about the issue.

She has visited Russia three times in recent years through an exchange program for lawyers and judges — part of Maryland's "sister-state" relationship with the Leningrad Oblast, an area around St. Petersburg — and met "young, smart people working toward justice for everyone," she said.

She would like to see Russia's gay-rights record improve, but the same could be said for the U.S. and other Western countries, she said. Her husband, Gov. Martin O'Malley, made a similar point when asked about Russia's record.

"The spirit of the Olympic Games is the spirit of universal human dignity," he said in a statement. "Some countries have moved further ahead than others in recognizing that dignity in their own laws. But we still have more work to do as one human family on this small planet."

Peter Fosselman, Maryland's deputy secretary of state for charities and legal services, who helps oversee Maryland's relationship with the Leningrad Oblast, said he personally has been "very disappointed in how Russia has been treating the gay society."

Fosselman is gay. He's been with his partner, Duane Rollins, for more than 16 years. And he raised funds, door to door, for legislating same-sex marriage in Maryland ahead of its passage in 2012.

Fosselman said there are no plans to end the sister-state relationship. "Closing the door doesn't necessarily help the situation," he said. "It's a cultural exchange, and it's a good opportunity to educate."

He still hasn't decide whether he'll watch the games.


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