Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir showed up to a recent training session wearing a jacket with “Sochi” emblazoned across it and carrying a matching blue pocketbook. Rhinestones were embedded in the blade guards for his skates.
The skater is determined to compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. And he is not going to let Russia’s new gay propaganda law stop him.
“I am gay just in my character and my appearance and the things that I wear,” said Weir. “So if that’s enough to be called propaganda and put me in jail for it, while it’s terrible, I’ll take it.”
Gay rights activists in the United States are increasingly looking to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as an opportunity to make a stand against the law, which makes it illegal to promote “nontraditional relations” around minors. Even foreigners who break it could be fined 100,000 roubles and detained for up to 15 days.
Activists say it is part of a broader attempt to criminalise homosexuality by President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party, which has also banned Pride demonstrations and made it illegal for gay foreign couples to adopt Russian children.
Russian authorities argue that adults are still free to do and say what they want – as long as it is isn’t where children might see them.
“An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” said Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, as reported by the Associated Press. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”
Some activists, like British actor Stephen Fry, have called for an all-out boycott of the Olympics – an idea Whitehouse spokesperson Jay Carney says is not being discussed. There’s a lot of debate over the best form of protest within the gay community.
“We are not going to stand silently while they attack us and our community and make us scapegoats," declared Ann Northrop, of Queer Nation’s New York chapter. She recently joined other activists dumping bottles of Russian vodka outside the Russian consulate in New York. Some bars in New York and elsewhere around the country have stopped carrying Russian brands in an attempt to pressure the country financially.
The boycott is getting a lot of attention, but the makers of Stolichnaya vodka claim they are being unfairly targeted. While they use Russian ingredients, the vodka is actually produced in Latvia. The company has also publically opposed the propaganda law.
Tanya Domi, a Russia specialist with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, thinks the Olympics could be the most effective way to go after Putin, who famously could care less about what the rest of the world – particularly the US government - thinks.
“The US government has very few carrots and sticks,” Domi explained. “Putin will see this as one of his greatest moments as president, to be at opening of the games in Sochi. To see this destabilized or tarnished in anyway will be a big insult to the government.”
She thinks going after corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and NBC – not a boycott of the games – would be most effective.
Weir is dead-set against an Olympic boycott. He thinks it would be unfair to athletes and also ineffective.
“Competing in the Olympics, whether I win or lose, just being there, saying I’m not afraid and your laws won’t contain me… that’s the best thing I can do. It’s not about waving rainbow flags in the middle of the Olympics, it’s about being a proper and lovely addition to society.”
He is well-known in Russia, where both his athletic ability and his marriage to a Russian-American man have made headlines. He has spent a lot of time in the country and speaks the language fluently.
One way or another, the Olympics may very well give him and the gay community their best platform to be heard.