An estimated 4,000 people turned out Saturday for a demonstration in Berlin under the motto “Enough is Enough,” calling on the German government and all sponsors of the 2014 Winter Olympics to demand an end to homophobic legislation in Russia. It was the second major European demonstration to protest Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law. The first was on August 20 when over 10,000 people marched in Copenhagen to deliver a petition against the anti-gay law to the Russian embassy.
“We’re trying to take a stance here to change the relations and debate. It’s very important to say enough is enough,” said one gay German protester with a t-shirt stating, “We’re Homo propaganda. Don’t look at me, Russian law says it will make you gay.”
When asked about Germany boycotting the Olympics, he conveyed that the games are only one component of the problem in Russia. “In my opinion it’s not a demonstration to boycott the Olympics. This is a chance to demonstrate for homo propaganda.”
The protest represents a shift in attention from the International Olympic Committee to individual nations, as protesters give their nations an ultimatum: force Russia to abolish its anti-gay laws, or remove the country from participation. In Germany, politicians have been at a loss when confronted with the demand to boycott the Olympics — an action that would not only strain ties with Russia but also punish their own athletes as well.
Russia’s anti-propaganda laws are nothing new. Their origins date back to 2006, and it was the Olympic Committee’s hasty decision to pick Sochi, in 2007, as the site of the 2014 Games without considering the impact of these laws that has lead to the current conflict. Six years later, the situation appears irreconcilable and headed for a disastrous, if not shameful, climax when the world’s athletes come together under questioned principles of equality and worldwide unity.
No stranger to human rights violations, Russia has remained steadfast in defending its laws since the Federal Assembly choose to strengthen them to protect minors last June. What have since followed are cases of extreme violence, “corrective rape,” and imprisonment against the LGBT community — some of it documented for the world on YouTube.
“I think it’s absolutely unbelievable that in this world today people are being denied their basic human rights,” said Jennifer, an American expat from the LGBT community in New York, who participated in Saturday's march in Berlin.
“If I’m not here, then I’m not being myself,” she said in response to why she was protesting. “The people and countries participating in the Olympics aren’t given basic human rights,” she added. “This is supposed to be a human event.”
Amid the backlash, nations have appeared powerless to help the LGBT community in Russia, as the safety of those athletes takes precedence over the need to leverage sanctions against Russia. With proposed solutions invoking a “don’t ask, don’t tell”-style mentality, this winter's Olympic games are on a course to set back the international LGBT community 20 years to the days of America’s military in early 1990s.
Removing Russia's law for the duration of the games is currently out of the question according to the Russian government, but International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said Russia had provided “strong written assurances that everyone will be welcome at the games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation.” This gives little indication of what measures will be taken against athletes who choose to dissent against Russia’s entrenched laws — or worse, who choose to reveal an alternative sexual orientation in the wake of the laws.
The Olympics have a legacy of clashing social and sexual ideals that goes back more than a century. Women were not allowed to compete in the games until 1900, and it wasn’t until the London Summer games in 2012 that every country participating featured female athletes.
Political grandstanding by athletes and national threats of boycotts may serve a purpose, but with Russia’s hosting of the games firmly in place, any challenges to their "rules" may come at a grave price to athletes' safety, among others.
“I understand that the athletes have trained very hard, and they’re focused on their sport. I support them and feel that they are brave for going,” said Evette Robertson, an expat from Willingboro, NJ, who also marched on Saturday. “But I feel very sorry that some of the athletes may be required to suppress themselves or hide.
“If they should put their arm around a lover that is of the same sex, they have to worry about being disqualified, banned, or thrown out of the country,” she said.
Protesting the current situation raises questions about similar efforts to sway an Olympic hosting country in the past, and how those efforts went wrong. Amidst criticism for China’s handling of disturbances in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2008, calls for boycotts of the Beijing Summer Olympics fell on deaf ears.
That same year, the country of Georgia called for a boycott of the current Winter games in Sochi as a retaliation against Russia’s involvement in the South Ossetia War — an attempt that was also unsuccessful.
Yet Russia’s anti-propaganda law seems to represent even more of a direct, social injustice than those past grievances that sought to dismantle the games. And with political tensions growing — most immediately over Russia's unflagging support of the Assad regime in Syria — there may have never been a stronger opportunity for outcry by countries that openly object to Russian policy.
Harry, a protester in a rainbow clown wig, stressed the importance of Germany’s role in this. “When you look around, people are coming from all over Germany to Berlin for this demonstration, so I think we can make a point,” he said. As he scanned the crowd from behind pink sunglasses, he added, “We can say, we are here, we are Germany, and we are the same as you. It is very important to show them that homo propaganda is allowed here, and that our law allows homosexuals to marry.”
With the recent passage here of a third gender law allowing parents to select an indeterminate gender option on their children's birth certificates, Germany seems to be the polar opposite to Russia's constrictive law-making. In Berlin, the LGBT community is strong and politically motivated, urging the German government to take a stand against Russia whether it means boycotting the games or not.
“We want to send a message to our government, because we are missing a clear voice from our government to Russia right now,” claimed Arndt, a Berlin protester with a sign emblazoned with logos of Olympic sponsors.
“Everyone thinks about what we can loose if we aren’t a part of the Olympic Games,” he explained. But, “If a country like Germany says no to joining the Olympic Games because of the lack of gay rights, then this could be a massive sign to other countries.”
However, with a heavy dose of realism, he concluded, “The government and companies are afraid of losing income.”
Much of the frustration on Saturday was aimed at sexualizing Russian president Vladimir Putin. Signs displaying his image in drag, or with rainbow-toned Hitler mustaches, were the predominant vehicle. Clearly, rather than helping to unite, these Olympics have caused a greater division between cultures. And we can only speculate what we'll see and hear once the games begin.