For the last two weeks, the most radical voice inside Sochi's Olympic stadiums was a wardrobe.
Johnny Weir's array of queer-coded outfits included a gold headband, a sequined blazer, a lace top, and always a bit more makeup beyond what the camera dictates as necessary for anyone, regardless of gender or sexuality. He looked like someone's nouveau riche aunt, or like Liberace hawking a wearable clothing line on HSN. He was the picture of fabulous, a harkening back to the old "sissy" trope that thrived in cinema in the decades before saying gay was OK. (His style prompted Don Lemon to snidely remark on CNN that, "No one likes a gay minstrel show," and then furiously backpedal when Carol Costello asked him what he meant. Lemon's foot is so often in his mouth that it's starting to seem like a fetish.)
At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Johnny Weir was a human nudge and wink, an out gay man daring to be as flamboyant as he wants to be in anti-gay Russia, and evidently so without having to say a word about it.
"I'm hoping my presence alone in Russia will be a show of strength for the Russian LGBT community," he said before the games. "I'm not going to become something I'm not. I'm going to be me."
It would have to suffice. Any sign of overt protest is forbidden in the Olympic Charter in what is now Rule 50, and this year people played by the rules. For as much press as Russia's anti-gay propaganda rule has received, in fact, the Olympics has its own:
No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.
Examples were swiftly made of non-athletes who dared to protest in Russia. On the day of the opening ceremony, four LGBT activists were arrested in St. Petersburg, and 10 were arrested in Moscow for violating the country's anti-gay propaganda law, which bans the "promotion" of "non-traditional sexual relations" toward children or in a space where children could witness it. Vladimir Luxuria, an Italian activist (and Europe's first openly transgender parliamentarian) was arrested in Sochi twice—once for displaying a banner that said "Gay is OK," and another for wearing a rainbow outfit.
"At a certain moment I was really afraid, asking, 'What you going to do with me?'" she recalled to Michelangelo Signorile. She was dropped off in the countryside the second time, detained for a few hours the first. Neither time did she suffer bodily harm. International Olympics Committee spokesman Mark Adams defended Luxuria's arrest, referencing the Olympics' rule against protests and adding, "We would ask anyone to make their case somewhere else." He did, though, call the public beating of Pussy Riot on Wednesday by Cossacks "unsettling."
It sure was. Resistance in Russia comes with a steep price, Olympics or no Olympics, as Pussy Riot has demonstrated time and time again. Anyone looking for 2014 equivalent of the Black Power salute from U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 games was left sorely disappointed. The few out athletes competing this year (seven, by most counts, and all women) were either apathetic or afraid, choosing to take their medals quietly. Russia's treatment of gays, of residents of Sochi, of humans in general, went largely unconfronted. Even those who came in to see the Speak Up, Not Walk Out campaign in action were given mere crumbs.
Pro-gay protest, as it existed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, was largely confined to small gestures. Barack Obama made openly gay Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano part of the U.S. delegation at the games, and Boitano attended the opening ceremony to pledge allegiance to tolerance. That ceremony provoked giggles with its repeated subliminal, mostly unintentional gayness. One of its more overt moments came via a performance from Russian duo t.a.T.u, which previously dabbled with lesbian imagery. German Olympians showed up in rainbow outfits in perhaps a show of solidarity with Russia's LGBT population—it was too tough to say for sure and that ambiguity was undoubtedly tailored.
Scott Thompson, in his Buddy Cole guise, covered the gay angle for The Colbert Report and at one time staged a mock protest in Sochi's designated protest zone. He was reprimanded by the police. This was among the boldest moves anyone in Sochi over the past two weeks could claim, and it was all for the sake of getting a laugh.
Away from Sochi, some Canadian cities flew rainbow flags at their city halls to show support for Russia's LGBT community. (Rob Ford, of course complained.) A handful of ads airing during the games featured gay themes. Olympic sponsors like AT&T, Chobani, and DeVry publicly condemned Russia's anti-gay laws. A Canadian gay bar sponsored speed skater (and multiple medalist) Denny Morrison. People hijacked hashtags. Norwegian pop singer Annie released a protest song, "Russian Kiss." Rihanna wore a hat supporting a protest campaign that highlights the International Olympic Committee's seeming violation of its own Principle 6 ("Sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise"). She Instagrammed a selfie with the hashtag #AntiDiscrimination. Yesterday in New York, the activist group Queer Nation held banners ("Don't Buy Putin's Lies," "Boycott Homophobia") and chanted outside Grand Central Station.
Small gestures. Gestures so small you had to look to find them. In her Olympics wrap-up, USA Today's Christine Brennan provided an inadvertently perfect summary of the activism at Sochi:
Yes, those protesting Putin's anti-gay propaganda law, including the punk activists Pussy Riot, did make their voices heard, which was good.
Yes. It was good. And that's about it.
As disappointed as I am that the gay rights movement didn't get an iconic moment at Sochi, I don't know what good it would have done, at least from inside Fisht Olympic Stadium. Athletes aren't activists. If you didn't know that, this year's crop of out Olympians should have proved it to you. Even Weir, in an interview with Keith Olberman last year, identified himself this way: "Before I'm a gay man, before I'm a white man, I am an Olympian."
During that same interview, Weir compared the situation for gays in New Jersey who at that time weren't allowed to marry, to that of gays in Russia. A little over a month later, same-sex marriage was legally recognized in New Jersey.
Gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff said, "The hate is funny," regarding the anti-gay tweets she sometimes receives. "I want to enjoy the Olympic experience, but after that I will definitely be voicing my opinion," she also said.
Gay Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz took home a silver medal this Olympics and reported that "everything is being blown up bigger than it is" in terms of anti-gay sentiment in Russia. "I had a very good welcome like every other athlete. There were absolutely no problems." Iraschko-Stolz also spoke out against protesting reasoning that "no one cares." "I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future and we should give them time," she added.
If that unearned optimism is disconcerting, bisexual Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst's reaction to Putin was disgusting. She hugged the oppressor and then later described their exchange as cuddling. She was the first LGBT person at Sochi to win a gold medal. If there is sort of activism to be derived from meritocratic achievement, the idea that you can show the world that you are not just like the rest of its population but in fact superior through ability alone, Wüst undid that with her tone deaf warmth. Here is an example of where basic inactivity—committing to say or do nothing—could have in fact said so much. Can you imagine the scandal had Wüst refused Putin's hug? Can you imagine if, in solidarity to the humans who are being hunted in the name of a grossly ignorant conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, Olympians didn't kiss Putin's ass whenever he showed up to greet them? It took a public shaming for Canadian speedskater Brittany Schussler to admit that posting a shot with Putin on Twitter, with a caption saying she should have asked him to be her Valentine, was in poor taste. ("It was only a joke + I never want to offend anyone so theres no harm in deleting it. I believe everyone should live their lives freely," was her post-deleting explanation.)
But politics have no place at the Olympics, right? Barack Obama said that:
Well, there is no doubt that we wanted to make very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in any forms, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and one of the wonderful things about the Olympics is that you are judged by your merit. How good you are regardless of where you come from, what you look like, who you love, and that I think is consistent with the spirit of the Olympics. It is certainly consistent with American values, and we want to make sure that people understand that.
What we ask is that the games themselves are not used as a platform for demonstration. The games are a great show of how different people from different backgrounds can move together in harmony and we want to try to preserve that.
Grantland's Anonymous in Sochi column, written by an unnamed member of the LGBT community at the games, rebuts this well ("A nation's Olympic traveling party is composed of many pieces — coaches, athletes, official representatives, staffers — and I'm a part of that. I can't tell you how I fit in..." went the column's first entry). This column represents my very favorite writing on LGBT issues and the Sochi games, and I think this passage from the third column deftly explains why being gay in a place where you aren't allowed to be out is an inherently political existence:
Take a moment out of your day today and do a search for "kiss" and "Olympics." Have a look. And, yes, the Tinder stories are true — it's all the talk here in Sochi … and the media are now catching on. Dozens of athletes have told me they have profiles and are seeking conversations and hookups. Support-staff members have also mentioned it in passing, and within my own group, it's definitely a popular topic.
I was hesitant to write about this, because I was worried my feelings and observations will be construed as a trivial complaint — another minority irritated by things others see as just normal.
I decided to write anyway.
The truth is that if I kissed my partner after winning a gold medal, or if the Olympic team I'm here with posted a photo of two men or two women kissing, it wouldn't be called love.
It would be called political.
A primary burden of being a non-heterosexual is having to consider any of this at all, which all of us do at some point, regardless of the tolerance level of our immediate vicinity. In Russia, where a gay person could be found in violation of the country's anti-propaganda law simply for showing affection to his or her partner, the burden is only getting heavier.
But what about Uganda and Nigeria and Gambia and India and backward states in the U.S. of fucking A., you ask? Russian-American activist and writer Masha Gessen provides a wonderfully succinct answer, telling Chris Hayes, "Well, just because someone else is abusing someone else doesn't mean that abusing is right. I don't understand that argument at all."
One of the best things to come out of this anti-gay bullshit in Russia is Gessen's elevated platform. This is wonderful not necessarily for her—Vitaly Milonov, author of the anti-gay propaganda bill, frequently uses her as an example of the kind of "pervert" his law is supposedly protecting children from; feeling at risk, Gessen eventually left the country—but for the world. She is a brilliant woman. She helped put together OR Books' recent moving collection of LGBT Russian narratives, Gay Propaganda.
I think that her explanation of her initial wariness when she was presented the project by co-editor Joseph Huff-Hannon, and her ultimate decision to take part, is fascinating:
I was not very nice. I did not need another project. And I didn't need another well-intentioned American suggesting a way to educate the Russian public, based on the good-hearted but thoroughly misguided notion that if only the Russian people knew more gays and lesbians, all of this would go away. What a load of crap.
Our problem was not public homophobia; our problem was the Kremlin, which had launched a campaign against us, the quintessential "foreign agent," the ultimate Other. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, had said the growing international trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage was a sign of the coming Apocalypse...
...When Joseph finally chased me down on Skype, he, mercifully and surprisingly, said nothing about educating the Russian public. In fact, he hardly seemed misguided at all. And when he sent me Tatiana's story, I realized what he was suggesting: this would be a samizdat project, the telling of stories for a small audience that needed it. I remembered reading (and typing and binding) samizdat publications as a child and a teenager in the former Soviet Union, and I remember what they did for me: they affirmed my view of existence; they let me know that my parents and I were not the only ones who thought differently. Some of these books contained stories of a different reality; others exposed the reality in which I lived; but the most important ones gave voice to things I would have wanted to say myself. Nobody dreamed of using samizdat to educate the larger society; its mission was to facilitate communication among like-minded people, and to help them locate one another. When I was a teenager, samizdat kept me sane. I needed this now.
That helps assuage the disappointment of those who wanted a Big Gay Protest fireworks display at the Sochi games. People like me, who probably err a bit too much on the side of the "well-intentioned American" that Gessen describes. Perhaps it would have reached people who really need it, but it certainly would have made those of us who have the privilege of hand-wringing from comfortable sidelines feel much better, more justified. That's always good, especially when it comes to something as clearcut as the unfairness of inequality (that homophobia still exists can start to make you feel crazy because the answers are so easy and people still willfully defy them), but it's so hard to say what the practical implications of a blow-up protest would have been. Maybe nothing. Maybe more anger from anti-gay Russians, particularly those in power.
In a very sharp piece that ran the day of the opening ceremony on Think Progress, Travis Waldron reasoned that "because [Putin's] movement is steeped in anti-Western sentiment, any protest against it during the Sochi Olympics will do little more than reinforce Putin's position among his people." Via protest, the deviant enemy would do what deviants do: deviate. That underscores how grim things are for Russian gays, whose lives are not just stifled, but whose voices are effectively silenced by this anti-gay propaganda law.
And it's only getting worse: While you were watching the games, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree officially banning same-sex couples from adopting Russian children (single people from countries that allow same-sex marriage are also banned). Another law making it illegal in Russia for gay people to parent children (even their own) may be on the horizon. A television host named Dmitry Kiselyov, who is so opposed to gay people that he said their hearts should be burned when they die, was honored for his humanitarian efforts with the Order of Service to the Fatherland award by Putin.
Things are grim, but there's always hope. If you are concerned about the issue and have more than a hashtag to offer, you can donate to the Russian Freedom Fund, which your funds will be used to "support Russian LGBT organizations and their allies to combat violence and discrimination for a life with dignity and safety."
Waldron's Think Progress piece targets the IOC for giving the Olympics to Russia, a country whose human rights violations go way beyond the indignities suffered by its LGBT population. Out former tennis pro Billie Jean King, who was also on Obama's Olympic delegation and attended the closing ceremony, has also advocated for the IOC consider a country's stance on gay rights when considering prospective hosting cities.
But ultimately the heightened scrutiny Russia has undergone for passing an anti-gay law in the wake of Sochi's hosting the Olympics has allowed for a handful of courageous gay people of Russia to have a voice. It's not adequate compensation for their country's oppression, but does give them international reach. The issue has gotten a good deal of press coverage (although utterly underwhelming on the part of NBC, which broadcast the games in the U.S.)—in addition to reports already cited in this post (Gay Propaganda, Stephen Fry's Out There, Channel 4's Hunted), there was Jeff Sharlet's "Being Gay in Russia" article in GQ, Vice's Young and Gay in Putin's Russia documentary, and a recent episode of ABC's Nightline. Porn entrepreneur Michael Lucas is releasing a documentary on the subject. All present distinct voices of persecuted people on platforms that can hopefully reach other persecuted people and create the same sort of comfort for them as Gessen's samizdats did her. Hopefully there is some sort of catharsis or comfort for those doing the talking that comes from knowing that they're heard, thus also less alone.
In an essay on Slate today, Gessen condemns the half-hearted, ineffective international efforts at Sochi protest: "The Sochi Games were the U.S. gay rights movement's first real attempt to venture into international work. It was an embarrassment." She prescribes attention on Russia's treatment of its LGBT community, something she told Hayes she feared would wane after the Olympics ended. "Only if Russian authorities know that the world is watching the specific individuals they are targeting will the LGBT activists on the ground be relatively safe—which is to say, alive and unlikely to face long prison sentences in the near future," she writes.
The issue of gay sports in Russia will hang around for at least a bit longer, as the Russian Open Games start Wednesday in Moscow and run for five days. Two hundred fifty LGBT athletes have signed up for the sporting event, which exists to show the world "we are normal people," according to Konstantin Yablotsky, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation. Because it's being held indoors and among adults, Yablotsky says he isn't concerned about attracting Russia's wrath.
If the Olympics weren't political enough for you, if they did not sufficiently satiate your hunger for protest, here's an entire festival in the name of protest, being held in Russia's capital city. There is hope.