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[Article] Could Kesler Be The Face Of Gay Rights In The Sochi Olympics?


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Here are three names that don't often appear in the same story: Vladimir Putin, John Carlos, and Harvey Fierstein. Putin is, of course, the judo-chopping, Super Bowl–ring–"borrowing," opponent-poisoning president of Russia. John Carlos, born and raised in Harlem, USA, is one of two men, along with Tommie Smith, who raised their fists for racial justice and human rights on the 200-meter medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Harvey Fierstein is, well, Harvey Fierstein: Tony Award winner, iconic Broadway performer, and longtime LGBT rights activist. Three very different people from three very different worlds have now dramatically crossed paths following Fierstein's scathing editorial last week in the New York Times calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Fierstein makes his reasons plain in the opening sentence, writing, "Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, has declared war on homosexuals." There is ample evidence that this is far from hyperbole. Putin and Russia's legislators seem set on criminalizing every aspect of gay life throughout the country. The Russian Duma (their Parliament) recently voted 436-0 in favor of banning "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations." This law is so broad that it threatens prison time for anyone who acknowledges the mere existence of LGBT people in any public forum such as the Internet, a classroom, or even a street corner. Putin also signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children not only by gay couples, but by any single people or unmarried couples who reside in a country where marriage equality is on the books. And he still wasn't done. The man our previous president lovingly nicknamed "Pootie Poot" (wish I were kidding) also approved legislation that hands out two-week jail sentences for any tourist suspected of being gay. (Four Dutch tourists were in fact recently arrested for "suspicion of promoting homosexuality to children.")

Under Russian law, Vladimir Putin could now legally arrest the Pope.

This spate of legislation is seen by many as connected to a string of brutal beatings and several grisly murders. The government doesn't track antigay hate crimes, but in one poll, 15 percent of LGBT people in Russia said they had been physically assaulted for being gay in the past 10 months.

Harvey Fierstein pointed out that lawmakers have threatened Olympic competitors as well as fans "suspected of being gay" with arrest.1 He then compared Putin's Russia to Nazi Germany, writing, "The Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott. In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler's campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance."

Fierstein's call to boycott has some support inside Russia. Twenty-three Russian LGBT activists put out a statement this week, writing, "International support is essential for the survival of Russia's LGBT community right now ... Vladimir Putin's regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi."

There are other LGBT forces that believe calling for a boycott of the Winter Games would be a tactical mistake. Leading Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseyev has instead announced the organizing of a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening of the Winter Games on February 7. Alekseyev has a particular credibility to call for a demonstration. His effort to open a Sochi Pride House during the Games — a resource center and safe space for LGBT athletes — was struck down by the Russian Justice Ministry.2 Alekseyev wrote, "[A pride march] will be much more effective [than a boycott] to draw attention to official homophobia in Russia all around the world and expose the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee ... Vive Sochi Pride 2014!" play_a_06_mexico_olympic_576.jpg

Whether or not there is a boycott, connecting Putin's systematic attacks on LGBT people to the Sochi Olympics is a stroke of political genius. This isn't only because it focuses international attention on an issue largely undiscussed in the mainstream press. Sochi could very well be the all-powerful Putin's Achilles' heel. These Winter Games, to be held for reasons that still make no sense in Sochi's subtropical climate, are going to be more expensive than any other Games — summer or winter — in history. Due primarily to shady no-bid construction contracts for Putin's business allies, $30 billion in public funds have simply disappeared. This isn't an Olympics. It's more like a heist. The almighty Putin is looking more with each passing day like this guy: attacking the LGBT community in a cheap effort to turn attention away from rampant corruption and growing inequality, symbolized sharply by what's happening in Sochi.

But is a boycott the best way to stop the attacks? The call for the United States and other countries to withdraw will garner immediate sympathy from anyone repulsed by photos like these. Whether it would actually be effective is a far thornier question. In 1935, the United States Amateur Athletic Union did come within a whisper of boycotting the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Berlin. Despite Jesse Owens's brilliance and four gold medals, it's hard to argue that it wouldn't have been one hell of a stronger statement if the United States hadn't legitimized Hitler's regime with its presence.3

On the other hand, the decision by President Jimmy Carter and the United States to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in protest of the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan is now universally reviled as Cold War posturing that accomplished nothing other than the denial of athletes the opportunity to compete and realize their dreams.

"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you. If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself."

— John Carlos

Johnny Weir, the openly gay USA figure skater who is married to a Russian man, is staunchly opposed to a boycott for the very reason that it would punish the athletes more than Russia,writing, "The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating Human Rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions, but I still will compete. There isn't a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics."

It's a strong statement. Unfortunately, it doesn't encourage anyone to do anything or point a way forward for how LGBT athletes, fans, and allies can actually use the Olympics as a platform to fight back.

For the brave athlete-activists who want to pressure Putin, the best-case scenario was laid out by sex columnist Dan Savage, who wrote, "If there isn't a boycott — if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter — there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos's protest during the Mexico City Olympics. It should happen on the medal stand while the world watches."

It's a great point. Few remember today that there was an organized call to boycott the 1968 Games by African American athletes and their supporters. When the boycott fell apart, Lew Alcindor (Kareem!) boycotted the Games anyway. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their protest to the medal stand. Whose political statement do we remember today?

I called John Carlos to get his thoughts on the boycott vs. protest debate.

"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you," he said. "If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we'd never have been heard from again."

I pointed out to Dr. Carlos that he may be correct, but that this requires someone actually having the courage in Sochi to stand up and pay the price. You could lose your medal, get kicked out of Olympic Village, and after the spasm of media praise, find yourself a pariah in the long years ahead. He said to me, "Yes, it takes courage, but if you have a conviction that what you are doing is right, then you're going to make the right move. Someone has to sacrifice if we are going to move forward. You might be forgiven in your lifetime; you might not. But if you're in the right, your sacrifice will be appreciated."

The USOC has already made clear4 that it won't be boycotting the Sochi Games. The best way to shine as bright a light as possible on the political and physical attacks in Russia is to take the fight to Sochi, both on and off the field of play. After that happens — and I do believe it's a matter of "when," not "if" — we should organize a big panel in Greenwich Village with Harvey Fierstein, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and whoever has the courage to use the Sochi stage to demand that the attacks stop. We can even invite Putin so he can meet the people he so casually demonizes. Just watch your rings.

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Sooo....the answer MIGHT be to win a medal - and paint & a rainbow on your face....

..but NOT stumping in Russia infront of the press or rallying a parade through downtown Sochi tossing literature to minors in violation of foreign law. That's being an uppity guest! Do so & get fined up to 3000 $US,... be jailed up to 15-days...be deported... be denied re-entry into Russia. Then - live with the fact that you're also encouraging other disturbances during the games. So - if Olympic security gets breached by culprits "up-to-no-good" - seeking to retaliate on the LBGT protesters or their country of origin...who's fault would you say that it is then?

Good grief. Hyperbole this is. The US-lead LBGT ring-leaders cannot possibly force their own moral standard of an open society on the universe...can they? Duh - silly me...I know they can!

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Dr. Carlos: "Yes, it takes courage, but if you have a conviction that what you are doing is right, then you're going to make the right move. Someone has to sacrifice if we are going to move forward. You might be forgiven in your lifetime; you might not. But if you're in the right, your sacrifice will be appreciated."

So, said the terrorists who decended upon Munich. Anyone else remember the lessons of Pandora's box? With the Russians in charge of Olympic security for the games...I would comply with their laws. I'm sure the safety of the athletes at the games is one of their chief concerns.

Why not attempt to de-politicize the Games - for just 20 days. It's a globally sanctioned event. Cultures WILL naturally be exchanged - without soap-boxes. Curb the billion-and-one-reasons one might criticize Russian society & their politics. Fantastic rhetoric & hyperbole are NOT olive branches. Celebrate sport & do the political posturing "outside" of those 20-days.

That's my hope.

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Yup...and many gays kept their sex lives private & their own business for generations in the States too. Nobody knows my sexual habits. I don't flaunt 'em. I certainly wouldn't flaunt 'em as a guest in a neighborhood or culture where folks have Fundamentalsit Muslim leanings...or Orthodox Russian..or Orthodox Jewish. Sex was behind closed doors for generations....and nobody's business but the consenting adults involved. Moralizing aside....

Putin is brokering a peace between factions who toss molotov cocktails & storm embassies over cartoon depictions, people who fear their children are turning their backs on the faith of their fathers, & over-zealous freedom-seekers using any opportunity to dis-credit Russian leaders & clash with Russian authorities. Give 'im a break! Making-compromises is something new for them.

Violent military revolution & confrontations is a pattern - I think they would now like to skirt or avoid. Politics is so very tenuous over - there. But - someone will be replacing Putin eventually. Don't tip the scales in favor of another Anti-West zealot!

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Sochi Athletes Subject to Anti-Gay Law - Russian Minister

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko warned Thursday that athletes and visitors to the Sochi Olympics will be subject to the country's laws against promoting homosexuality, contradicting a statement from the International Olympic Committee that the government had promised they would be exempt.

The IOC told R-Sport Friday it "has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," which start February 7.

But in the first reaction from the government since the IOC made that claim, Mutko appeared to set the record straight.

"No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable," Mutko told R-Sport.

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Do you know that under Finnish law...being single...or unmarried as a co-habitating couple, is far more advantageous...than being legally married? Especially - in regards to taxation. Perhaps - just one of the reasons the marriage-rate is now down in Finland. Are those the kind of rights and protections you're talking about?

What do you even know about the entitlements of a Russian individual...over married or same-sex couples in Russia - anyway? I'm guessing nothin'.

Finland has one of the best educations systems in the world. Offers free post-secondary education to its' citizens ..yet still experiences a brain-drain and loses most of their qualified citizens to the continent or else where. Does a lack of familial roots have anything to do with this? No more folks down on the family farm? Or continuity in family-run businesses?

Nations, for the most part, get to establish their own social norms and standards. Democratically or not. For a nation that's been splitting itself apart....on land that's harsh to live upon...it seems to me that strengthening the posterity of those families committed to the land and its townships....is something that the Russian govt would be wise to do. That's why it is championing the causes of backward Orthodox & fundamentalists sects.

After-all, in this fake democracy - Putin needs to demonstrate that he has some popularity with...someone! That - and he bribes people,.....pays kick-backs to powerful friends,...& targets opponents...same stuff that's been going on in democracies since time began.

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In my mind this is far more fair to people because the government obviously loves people co-habitating together. Their lives are more important then worrying about how they are getting used. While they can't tax them to the ying yang single people still have a choice. Married people are basically cochroaches to the system that are completely under control. They stick mainly to hotels and pay the the rent everyday without question.

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An online petition to move the 2014 Winter Olympic Games from Sochi to Vancouver has accumulated over 40,000 signatures.

The petition is a result of anti-homosexual legislature that Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law on June 30.

The petition, found on Change.org, is imploring the IOC to move the games to Vancouver, the site of the 2010 Winter Games.

A statement on the petition’s page reads, “In 2010 (Vancouver) successfully held the games. The facilities are already in place and can be made, with support, ready in the limited time period to host another games.”

Among the many signees of the petition is former Star Trek star and current social media icon George Takei, who took to his personal blog to let his feelings be known.

“Many believe that such a call to move the Olympics out of Russia goes too far,” Takei writes. “Would this be their opinion if the law instead called for the arrest of any Jews, Roman Catholics or Muslims should they display any sign of their religion, such as a wearing a yamaka or praying while facing Mecca? Discrimination in any form is a blight upon the Winter Games, and it must not be tolerated.

“Nations are not judged merely on their might, but also by how they treat their most vulnerable,” Takei continues. “Russia’s cynical and deplorable actions against the LGBT community have given license to hate groups within its borders to act with violence and impunity against a group, based solely on whom they were born to love. It now seeks to spread that hate abroad through its tainted Olympics. If Russia hopes to stand with the International Community, it must accept and adopt international principles of equality and non-discrimination.”

The IOC has come out multiple times imploring Russia to change its policy but the petition’s organizers believe it’s falling on deaf ears.

“We appreciate (the IOC’s) efforts in requesting Russia allow gay athletes to compete at the games, but this is not enough,” the petition’s statement reads.

Despite all of this pressure from the international community, Russia, so far, is refusing to budge on the issue

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