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Boycotting the Olympics would have made things worse for Russia's gay community.

Sochi 2014

Should Australia have boycotted the Sochi Olympics?

As we head into the Sochi Olympics this week, a cloud continues to hang over the games. Russia’s anti-gay and lesbian crackdown has made international headlines, bringing into question the right of the country to host the Olympics.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, signed legislation that banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”.

The law is extensive, fundamentally threatening the rights of anyone to publicly express any gay-rights sentiment. The bill is shaped off similar legislation that was adopted in St Petersburg two and a half years ago. It also follows multiple bans on gay pride marches in Moscow, fines given to gay rights groups who have been accused of acting as ‘foreign agents’ and the denial registration to other non-governmental organisations. Alongside all of this, violence, intimidation and harassment has risen.

In other words it is very bad. An awful attack on some pretty basic democratic rights.

The question therefore must be asked, should we have boycotted the Olympics? Should we have made Russia pay the ultimate price for their crackdown? And are we sending the wrong message – that you can attack rights and not suffer because of it – by attending, and watching, the games?

This has certainly been the argument many have made, making connections to the ‘stain on the five rings’ that occurred when the Olympics were held in Berlin in 1936. British actor Stephen Fry has argued:

“An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.”

The argument is convincing. Attacks on rights such they cannot be swept under the carpet, approved of, or hidden away. And allowing Russia to continue to reap the benefits of the Olympics could easily be seen to do that.

But whilst a boycott may seem like the natural response to the attacks, it is not necessarily the one that will lead to the repeal of the legislation and the reversal of the crackdown. In fact, it could have the opposite effect. To understand this, we need to have a look at the reasons behind the attack in the first place. To do so I spoke to Andre Banks, the co-founder and Executive Director of All Out, an organisation that been campaigning heavily on the issue. Andre stated:

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“What you’re seeing in Russia is a complex intersection of a number of factors.There is an increasingly strong and conservative voice in the Russian Orthodox Church that is pushing for these kinds of moral reforms. I think that that’s running into a situation, a more political situation, where you have a President in Putin who is reliant on a conservative and often rural based where this kind of legislation really plays to.

“And I think the last thing is that you have a deep seeded cultural homophobia that has yet to be challenged by LGBT people being able to counter stories and really change people’s minds about what it means to love the person of your choosing.”

Altman’s The End of the Homosexual

Importantly, this growing conservative culture has been met with an equally growing anti-Western backlash. In his latest book The End of the Homosexual, Dennis Altman for example argued that in many areas, including Russia, homosexuality is now seen as a ‘western import’.

It is seen as the importation of a culture that the antithesis of the Russian world. The anti-gay backlash is part of a broader anti-Western backlash. It is for this reason that gay rights groups are being fined as ‘foreign agents’.

And it is also for this reason that boycotts are not necessarily the right way to go.

Banks explained further:

“This is the question where we really took the lead of the Russian organisations. They’re feeling on this was that this was a great opportunity and a great platform for people to speak out against these games, to speak out against the laws, as opposed to just not showing up and then having the games go on and these people be scapegoated as the people who sort of turned the world against Russia.”

Simon Copland

That doesn’t mean of course that we can’t and shouldn’t speak out against the legislation. In fact, that is what All Out’s campaign is all about. Speaking up and speaking out is essential to opening the discourse in Russia – making it a mainstream issue to be debated in the country.

And importantly one to give space to those campaigning on the issue here. But we have to do so in a way that supports and bolsters groups on the ground – groups such as Coming Out or the Russian LGBT Network. Boycotts however isolates these groups, both internationally and on the local scene.

You can, therefore, feel free to enjoy the games. But do so whilst speaking out and supporting those fighting against the legislation in Russia.

Support the Germans wearing their rainbow uniform, cheer on those speaking out against the laws, and – if you can – donate to support groups fighting them on the group.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner with 350.org. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs here and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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