Sochi: The Winter (Olympics) of our Discontent

Jonny Woo interviews Peter Tatchell on homophobia in Russia

 QX magazine- London, UK – 30 January 2014


Jonny Woo: So we have come a long way, but in other parts of the world the situation is much harsher. Let’s start with Russia.

Peter Tatchell: For me, queer freedom knows no borders. We mustn’t give up the fight until every LGBT person on this planet has human rights, respect and dignity. After a period of post communist liberalisation in the 1990s, Russia has gone backwards on LGBT rights.

The most outrageous move is the new anti-gay law that was passed in Russia in the summer of 2013. It bans the promotion of ‘non traditional’ sexual relations to young people under the age of 18. The reality is that the law is being interpreted to criminalise any gay visibility or advocacy regardless of whether a young person has seen it or not. For example, a man held up a sign saying ‘homosexuality is normal’ and got done under the new anti-gay laws. There is no evidence that a person under the age of 18 witnessed him or his sign. Teachers are being sacked from their jobs simply because they are gay or lesbian.

The new Russian law makes it a crime to depict homosexuality as ‘interesting’ or ‘attractive’. It’s also an offence to suggest that homosexuality and heterosexuality are equally valid. This means that it is explicitly prohibited to provide young gay teens with positive, affirmative counselling or safe sex and HIV prevention information. Gay organisations will be in big trouble if they have any members under 18. The Russian state is effectively forcing, by legal threats, the abandonment of young LGBT people. Anyone who helps them, gay or straight, can be prosecuted under this law.

The legislation has created and given state sanction to an intensely homophobic atmosphere. Gay bashing is rife. Ultra nationalists are luring young gay men off the internet to rendezvous and then torturing, abusing and humiliating them – and then posting photos and videos of the abuse on social networks. There is an atmosphere of real terror. At least two gay men have been murdered. The police do nothing.

How has this state-sanctioned homophobia impacted the Russian LGBT community?

Many Russian gay people who were previously out have gone back in the closet because they fear arrest or violent attack. Against their wishes, they feel obliged to police their own dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, when they are in public places. The threat of violence is potentially around every corner.

Much of the drive for this intensified gay repression is coming from far right ultra nationalists and the Russian Orthodox Church. They want to recriminalize homosexuality and pass a law that deprives gay parents of their children. These are the next big fears. The Russian government is giving tacit license, even approval, to this homophobic witch-hunting atmosphere.

The attacks on the LGBT community are part of a wider attack on Russian liberties. It would be a huge mistake to focus simply on LGBT rights. This would isolate and marginalise gay Russians. We need to make sure this fight for LGBT rights is fought and won as part of the battle for the human rights for all Russian people. A LGBT-straight alliance for human rights is the way to go.

Why is the situation is Russia so important?

What’s happening in Russia is not taking place in another part of the world with a hugely different cultural background. It’s happening on the doorstep of Europe. It’s happening in a country that has contributed a lot to the history of human civilisation, especially in the fields of art and culture.

Russia wants to be part of the European family. The anti-gay law clearly violates the equality and freedom of expression clauses of the Russian constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has signed and pledged to uphold. All we are asking is that Russia honours its own constitution and the European convention

Is Russia a homophobic nation?

The vast majority of Russians support the Russian law and a great many think homosexuality should be illegal and homosexuals should be locked-up. A sizable minority think gay people deserve to die. It’s a form of collective homophobic hysteria based on prejudice, fear and ignorance.

Would a boycott of The Winter Olympics in Sochi solve anything?

The new anti-gay law is evil, but I’m not sure it’s evil enough to justify a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. This would punish the athletes who are not responsible for state policy. But world leaders should boycott the opening and closing ceremonies. All those empty VIP seats would send a powerful message to Putin. If they do go, government leaders from the UK and other countries should meet with LGBT organisations and publicly criticise the new law. This is the very least they should do. To go and be part of the spectacle, without criticising the anti-gay repression, would encourage and legitimise the Putin regime.

What do you think of Clare Balding’s appointment as lead commentator on the event for the BBC?

I’m delighted that Clare Balding has been chosen as the lead BBC presenter. It’s really good she’s going there, providing that she makes it clear that she is a lesbian and opposes the anti-gay law. If she simply goes to Russia and says nothing, the only person rubbing their hands with glee will be Putin. Clare, and indeed all the presenters, have a duty to make their feelings publicly known.

What about sponsors?

I think it’s time all the major sponsors – McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Visa, Panasonic and others – spoke out against the anti-gay law and homophobic violence. Companies like Coca Cola have issued general statements of support for LGBT rights and opposition to homophobic violence, but they have made no specific criticism of, or disassociation from, the anti-gay law in Russia.

Has the International Olympic Committee put corporate rights over human rights?

The IOC has allowed the Olympics to be turned into a giant corporate jamboree. It’s all about PR and profits, not about human rights. The anti-gay law is a violation of the 6th principle of the Olympic Charter, which is no participating state should discriminate.

What the IOC is refusing to address is that in the current homophobic atmosphere is it very unlikely that an openly gay or bisexual athlete would be selected for the Russian Olympic team. The Russian refusal to allow a Pride House at the Sochi Olympics is another example of discrimination. In both instances, the IOC is looking the other way and doing nothing. It is tacit collusion and endorsement.

What else is going on around the world with regards to homophobic legislation?

The Indian Supreme Court has just re-criminalised homosexuality. Uganda has passed legislation to extend the existing penalty of life in prison for anal intercourse to all other same-sex acts including kissing and touching (although the president has blocked it – for now at least). Nigeria has not only banned same sex marriages and civil unions but also gay organisations, events and advocacy – and recently the BBC reported a gay man being lashed. An Australian court struck down a law enacted by the Australian Capital Territory to allow same sex marriages. In Cameroon, a gay prisoner who was jailed for three years for sending an ‘I love you’ text message to a man, recently died due to medical neglect.

Although regrettable, the backlash is paradoxically a sign of LGBT success. We are making gains and that is what has prompted homophobes to lash out. There wouldn’t be a backlash if the LGBT community wasn’t powering forward. The ferocity of our opponents is a sign of their desperation. They know they are losing. LGBTs will triumph. Freedom and justice always win in the end.

What YOU can do!

strong>Join the protest organised by All Out against Russian homophobia and the Sochi Winter Olympics on Wednesday 5 February, 6-7pm outside Downing Street, Whitehall, London SW1A 2AA. Nearest tubes Charing Cross & Westminster. WEAR RED for LOVE. Sign up on facebook:
Urge the UK & Russian governments, and the International Olympic Committee, to uphold Principle 6 (P6) of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination.
Call on Olympic corporate sponsors – such as Coca Cola, McDonalds and Visa – to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay law and homophobic violence.
Download posters from the All Out website:

Attend the Alternative Sochi Opening Ceremony – Not the Winter Olympics – Friday 7 February at Lime Wharf, Vyner Stret, London E2 9DJ, 8pm-2am. In aid of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. INFO & TICKETS:

Sign-up to receive the human rights email bulletins of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and make a donation:

Email your MP – via the website Ask them to write to them on your behalf to the Russian ambassador protesting the anti-gay law and rising homophobic violence in Russia.

Tell your friends and family about what is going on in Russia. Make sure they know the reality of how bad things are.