Russian authorities and the International Olympic Committee are crying foul as activists for gay rights stage worldwide protests aimed at the Sochi Winter Games, whose opening ceremonies are less than two days off. The activists say they are targeting the Games to raise global awareness about what they allege is an atmosphere of official intolerance and growing social violence against Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] citizens.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report Tuesday, including some gut-wrenching video of violent homophobic crimes taken and posted online by perpetrators. The group warns that such violence is spiking in Russia amid an official campaign that demonizes gay people, encourages police to ignore simple legal protections that would apply to other citizens, and inspires anti-gay vigilantes to believe that the state is on their side when they commit homophobic hate crimes.
"We're not blaming the Sochi Olympics for this, but we do believe this is an issue the IOC should take a stand on," says Tanya Cooper, a Russia researcher with HRW. "This is an issue of discrimination, and we are extremely disappointed with the response, although we have tried repeatedly to engage the IOC about it."
In Sochi Tuesday, IOC President Thomas Bach chided world leaders, such as Barack Obama, for staying away from Sochi over the various controversies that have swarmed around the Games, most particularly the issue of LGBT rights in Russia.
"In the extreme we had to see a few politicians whose contribution to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received," Mr. Bach said, according to an IOC transcript of his remarks.
And he slammed LGBT groups for "political" grandstanding that threatens to undermine Olympic unity and detract from the athletic excellence that the Games are supposed to showcase. "Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes," he said, apparently addressing activists. "It is my deepest conviction that this would also be in your well-understood long-term political interest. People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines."
The Kremlin-funded, English-language TV network RT posted a news report Tuesday suggesting that "heavy-handed" Western media attention to LGBT issues will only hurt Russia's gay community. "I think [the Western reporting is] really bad, it negatively affects gay Russian people, because society blames them for spoiling the Olympics," the owner of one of Sochi’s gay clubs, Andrei Tanychev, is quoted as telling RT.
Russian LGBT activists say they are not apologetic about stepping into the Olympic limelight to outline their case.
"The situation with LGBT people in Russia is very bad. This has been going on and getting worse for some time, without anyone even noticing," says Sasha Semyonova, an activist with Vikhod [Coming Out], a St. Petersburg-based LGBT group.
"So, we're not sorry for having a public discussion about it. Open scrutiny and debate is the only way to change things. We are sure that publicity is our friend, and we can see that it's something our abusers are afraid of," Ms. Semyonova says.
Homosexuality, which was punishable with prison time in Soviet days, was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. Polls routinely show that Russians are much less willing to agree that society should "accept homosexuality" than their counterparts in most countries of the developed world. Russia's powerful Orthodox Church advocates reinstating criminal penalties for being gay and has suggested a national referendum on the issue.
President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials cite public opinion to defend the restrictive law that Russia's State Duma did pass last year, which bans "the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors. Mr. Putin has repeatedly insisted that the law doesn't affect the way adult gays conduct their lives, but is only meant to protect children from sexual predators much as similar laws in other countries do.
Indeed, even comedian Jon Stewart recently lampooned the hypocrisy that underlies some US criticism of Russia's anti-gay laws – no country in the world has yet done away with homophobia – while a commentary in The Washington Post pointed out that there are plenty of US local laws against promoting homosexuality that mirror the Russian one.
However, activists point out that the Russian law, though it has not yet been widely applied, effectively shuts down any gay or even pro-gay public speech or behavior that might be seen or heard by minors. So far the law has been used mainly against adults attempting to stage gay pride parades or other demonstrations in support of LGBT rights. But according to a report in the Moscow daily Izvestia Wednesday, it has recently been employed to bring juvenile charges against a 9th grade student in a small town in Bryansk region who posted about her gay sexual orientation on a social networking site.
"This is a minor who was bullied and harassed by adult men after she posted about this, and now instead of being protected she finds herself facing charges. It's a new usage of that law, and it shows the way things are going," says Semyonova.
Human rights experts say the direct applications of the law, at least so far, are not the main problem.
"Homophobia has always existed within Russian society, but because of this law and all the negative attention given to this issue, the number of serious homophobic attacks has grown dramatically," says Natalia Yudina, deputy director of the Sova Center, an independent think tank that tracks extremist organizations and actions in Russia.
According to Sova, the number of serious homophobic crimes in 2009, the first year they began compiling statistics, was zero. There were 3 the next year and 12 hate crimes against gays in each of the following two years. In 2013, the number jumped to 25 crimes, including two murders, after all the agitation by legislators, the church, and state-owned TV in favor of the "anti-gay propaganda" law.
"The LGBT community gives much larger figures for anti-gay hate crimes, but Sova only registers it when it's a serious crime [involving injury or death] and it is proven that the motive was anti-gay hatred," says Ms. Yudina. "It's clear that [because of the new law] anti-gay extremists sense that they have the government's support and believe they can act with impunity."
Ms. Cooper, of Human Rights Watch, says that Russian police often look on but do nothing when gay people are being attacked.
"It does appear that police are disinterested in investigating these crimes. Worse, a lot of victims don't even report abuse to the police because they fear being further victimized. Russian police are part of Russian society, and society just now is being bombarded with anti-gay messaging and claims that they present some kind of threat to children," Cooper says.
Mr. Putin and IOC President Bach maintain that the issues around gay rights in Russia are political, and therefore shouldn't be raised in connection with the Sochi Games, she adds.
"But it's not political, its about discrimination. And that falls squarely within the IOC's responsibility. They need to speak out about this."