While Western gay activists call for an outright boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi over a homophobic new law, the Russian city’s discreet gay community wants athletes to compete — and wear rainbow shirts.
In New York gay and lesbian activists have poured Russian vodka down the drain and urged nations to boycott the 2014 Winter Games after President Vladimir Putin in June signed a law banning the dissemination of “propaganda” on homosexuality to minors.
But gays living in Sochi who agreed to talk to AFP said that a peaceful show of support at the Games would do more to help the gay rights cause.
Andrei Tanichev, the owner of a gay club, said his regular customers were “categorically against a boycott”.
He called for athletes to express their support for gay rights in ways that Russian state television will be unable to ignore, like wearing rainbow outfits on the track.
“Russia can’t do anything about athletes who are planning to wear rainbow T-shirts, and that’s one of the reasons we don?t think a boycott is needed,” Tanichev said.
Vladislav Slavsky, a secondary school pupil in his late teens who has organised a gay rights protest in Sochi, said he also opposed an outright boycott of the Olympics.
He thinks the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should have instead demanded that Russia cancel its controversial law on homosexuality and threaten to move the event unless Moscow complies.
But IOC Coordination Commission chairman, Jean-Claude Killy, last month said the organisation had no business weighing in on laws in host countries as long as the Olympic Charter is respected.
Putin in August also signed a vaguely-worded decree banning any protests in Sochi during the Olympics unless they were related to the Games.
Asked by AFP last month if Russia would allow a gay rights rally, the Sochi Organising Committee head Dmitry Chernyshenko said that gay rallies could theoretically be judged as “related” to the Games, but would still require the city’s permission.
“If the city authorities find it possible, then (activists) won’t have any problems,” he said.
He also promised that organisers would respect all visitors and not “interfere in their private lives.”
‘What is there to be joyful about?’
Yet it remains uncertain if Sochi, one of European Russia’s southernmost cities and close to the traditionally conservative societies of the Caucasus mountains, is ready for gay pride events.
“Sochi is more homophobic than Moscow,” said Slavsky.
“My understanding is that a parade is joyful,” he said. “What is there to be joyful about? Homophobia, murders and suicides?”
In June Slavsky plucked up the courage to hold a small gay rights picket in Sochi with a handful of friends. The police did not interfere — but only because they did not understand the slogans on placards written in English, he said.
He said he had also tried to establish a gay rights organisation, but gave up after meeting no support from the gay community.
While Tanichev said he hopes foreign athletes will speak up for gay rights during the Olympics, he said he would not participate in any gay rights rallies or parades himself.
“Nobody will go to gay pride parades, and nobody needs these parades today,” Tanichev said.
He added that his club polled guests and found that 99 percent said they opposed such events as “provocative”.
An established businessman, Tanichev said his club had never been trashed by ultra-conservatives or harassed by police, despite hosting nightly drag queen shows.
Nevertheless the door of the Lighthouse club is always kept locked, and under a strict door policy, first-time visitors are turned away unless they are accompanied by someone known to the doorman.
‘I will move away’
For Slavsky being gay in Sochi is a constant and sometimes dangerous struggle.
He told of a harrowing campaign of verbal and physical attacks that had forced him to delete his social networking page, change his mobile number and even move apartment.
?I am in school and it is hell. Every day I go there as if I’m heading into battle,? he said.
Recently a teacher advised him to set up a new page online, saying he is not gay. “Like coming out in reverse,” he added bitterly.
Kids pelt him with bread in the school cafeteria and ambush him with rocks behind the bushes near his house, he said.
?It?s simply because I exist.?
Regardless of the Olympic Games, Slavsky plans to leave the city next spring after finishing school and go to live somewhere he can find like-minded people.
“I decided for myself that I will move away,” he said.
“If I had the confidence that I could work here to fight homophobia with a group of supporters, that all of this would end, I would stay. But I just don?t have that confidence now.?
[Image via AFP]