An Eye on Sochi: A Sporting Chance for Challenging Sexual Rights Violations in Russia?

Street art in support of LGBT people at Sochi's Winter Okympics by ida4. Newcastle, UK
By Elizabeth Mills and Alison Carney

This is the first of a series of blogs that we will publish on the topic of sexuality and the law through the lens of the Olympics, as we keep an eye on the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Russia.

With the opening of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics tonight, we explore how the Olympics have brought to centre stage the growing number of repressive laws and acts of violence in Russia against individuals on the basis of their sexuality. While the world watches Russia, we will also look to the world and ask: as these issues are brought to centre stage, what might this mean for people in countries across the Global North and South who – like those in Russia – continue to struggle to access essential and equitable resources and who continue to be denied these rights on the basis of their sexuality?

Why are we keeping an eye on Sochi? 

On 30 June 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into a law Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offence. This law bans the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors," condemning “non-traditional” sexual relationships, which it places in opposition to “traditional family values.” As we go onto discuss in our upcoming blog post, the notion of a “traditional family” is connected to Putin’s project for “expanding the Russian nation”, and points to a range of problematic assumptions around reproduction and rights for all people, irrespective of their gender identity and sexual orientation.

The anti-propaganda law has drawn international condemnation, particularly in light of its confluence with the 2014 Winter Olympics. In a speech to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), just before the opening of the Games today, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized the escalation of violence against the LGBT community following the implementation of this bill, saying "many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice." Google pinned its colours to the mast this morning on its homepage, with a rainbow doodle featuring winter sports and the Olympic charter supporting equality.

Sexuality and the Law: Looking at Russia in Context

Although the ‘anti-propaganda’ law itself has drawn international condemnation, it cannot be considered in isolation from the increasingly repressive political environment that has, also very recently, been highlighted by the imprisonment of two (former) members of the Russian feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot.

While the imprisonment of Pussy Riot and the Russian President’s support of homophobic policies like the anti-propaganda law may seem rather disparate, they do in fact have much in common.

Pussy Riot’s political ideology, which raised in part the struggle for women to access safe abortions, and the national and international mobilization against Russia’s anti-propaganda law both highlight the extent to which the Russian Parliament and President are introducing laws that place restrictions on people’s autonomy over their body.

It is this intersection – between the law and people’s ability to exercise autonomy in an environment that upholds equality – that lies at the core of IDS’s Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

Not only do we see linkages across the struggle for rights linked to sexuality in Russia more broadly, but we also need to keep in mind that the most recent introduction of the ‘anti-propaganda’ law has a long history in which the Russian government and legal system has sought to close down the constitutionally enshrined rights of its citizens on the basis of their sexuality. For example, in 2011, the European court fined Russia for violating articles 11, 13, and 14 of the European Convention by banning 164 pride events and marches between 2006 and 2008. Asserting its national sovereignty, however, in 2012 Moscow went on to ban gay pride marches in the capital for the next century.

It is in this increasingly restrictive political and legal environment that Russian citizens – of all sexual orientations and gender identities – have expressed a corresponding concern around the rise of social stigma particularly against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

“Leave the children in peace”: Putin’s dangerous defiance

When challenged about the anti-propaganda law, Putin said, “people can feel free and at ease but please leave the children in peace”. In doing so, he made public his views on what the homophobic right have often erroneously called the ‘slippery slope of sexual rights’ by linking homosexuality with practices that threaten children’s wellbeing, like incest and paedophilia.

Just two days before the opening of the Winter Olympics, however, a UN children’s rights panel condemned this law, showing that it has serious and negative implications for the rights of children who may themselves be transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer, or who come from families that are not narrowly defined as ‘traditional.'

This new law has been accompanied by other fundamental violations of the human rights of LGBTQI persons in Russia, including – as described above – the banning of gay rights parades, fines for LGBTQI rights groups, intimidation and incarceration of LGBTQI activists.

Although the Russian government has claimed that athletes competing in the Olympics will not be affected by the legislation, the Russian Sports Minister has stated that if athletes of “non-traditional sexual orientation” go out in the streets and propagate their sexuality, they will be “held accountable.”

What role can sport play in challenging, or even changing, repressive laws?

The international community, including the IOC have publicly condemned the law, initiated LGBTQI rights awareness campaigns and clearly stated their support for athletes of any sexual orientation. In addition, the Russian LGBT Network asked that athletes and spectators not boycott the Olympics and stated that such action would “risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity and taking a firm stance against the disgraceful human rights record in this country.”

As the largest international sporting event in the world, the Olympics brings attention to the host country in a multitude of ways, in this case providing the platform to showcase Russia’s increasingly repressive laws and policies that shut down a multiplicity of rights linked to sexuality.

As the World looks to Sochi, we also need to look out at the World

Without an Olympics bringing other governments repressive policies into the public spotlight – like Nigeria and India’s recent (re)criminalisation homosexuality – there’s a risk that we might forget that this issue is far more pervasive and uncontested than one would believe from the global mobilization seen in the media against Russia’s policies.

It is against this geopolitical background that the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme seeks to highlight the implications of laws and policies on the lives of those who hold myriad gender identities and sexualities, and who may be discriminated against as a result.

In the next few weeks, as we keep an eye on Sochi, we will be asking: what role does this global sporting event play in the debate around human rights, sexuality, national sovereignty and transnational activism? And what role should, and can, athletes play in taking this debate forward? Importantly, we will consider, too, the longevity of the campaigns and media storm surrounding this Olympics. For those people living in and beyond Russia who continue to be marginalised on the basis of their sexuality, we ask: what will happen when the world’s gaze shifts, and the storm around the Olympics subsides?

Elizabeth Mills is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and convenes the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme at IDS.

Alison Carney is a sports and development consultant, with extensive experience on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights. 
Date published: 

Alison Carney

Gender, Sport and Development Consultant