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The case for gay rights and avoiding Russia: ‘If you’re going to boycott Russia, please don’t do it quietly’ Add to ...

Her words are similar to those of playwright-actor Harvey Fierstein, who, writing on the New York Times op-ed page, recently compared the upcoming Games to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In calling for a boycott, he wrote: “Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war.”

On Thursday, Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko made it clear that athletes will be subject to the vague, broadly defined ban in February. Until then, the majority view was that they would not be vulnerable.

It was the opinion expressed by former Olympian Mark Tewskbury when I spoke to him days ago. Even so, the Canadian swimmer, who has won multiple medals, had already decided not to attend the Sochi Games. “It’s terrible what is happening for gays and lesbians in the country. The International Olympic Committee picks these countries seemingly without regard to the human-rights situation. Beijing …”

The day after the Russian minister weighed in, Tewksbury called back. "For me, his comments that the athletes are not protected is a game-changer. This puts the onus squarely on the International Olympic Committee to look after the athletes and their fans. If I were chef [de mission] for this Olympics [not London], and I forgot and put my arms around my partner …"

This year, marks the 20th anniversary of Boris Yeltsin decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and the 80th anniversary of Joseph Stalin outlawing them. (Gay sex was legal for a brief period after the Revolution.) While gay marriage has triumphed in other places, the Russian public’s hostility toward homosexuality seems to have grown, not lessened, during the post-communist years, especially during the recession in the late 1990s, says Daniel Healey, a Canadian-English citizen who has written the canonical history of homosexuality in the Soviet years for the prestigious University of Chicago Press. One poll pegs public support for the latest anti-gay legislation at more than 80 per cent.

Healey takes up a professorial appointment at Oxford this fall and is one of a cadre of international academics who do dispassionate work on sexual culture in Russia. His research depends on access to the country. He speculates on how the breadth of the law might affect presentations made by him and his colleagues at Russian universities. “Do we have to check IDs to make sure not one of the students is a minor?”

For my part, it is unclear that I would even get a visa for Russia – especially after writing this piece. I would love to take in the downhill at the Olympics, but mainly I’d be tempted to see St. Petersburg again – check out Jack Diamond’s new Mariinsky Theatre and roam the streets where Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov walked – and where I strolled when I was young. But I can’t imagine going on that sort of pleasure-filled, sentimental journey until the government stops viewing homosexuality as a decadent vice and starts treating gay Russians as human beings.

In the absence of a boycott, I’d be proud if a top-tier Canadian competitor would, after thanking Mom and Dad, speak in favour of gay rights. Will the authorities actually hustle an NHL player off the podium and into custody?

I would discourage anyone else from travelling to Russia – and encourage them to give to the country’s gay-positive charities and activist groups, which are sorely in need of funds. (Coming Out, a St. Petersburg group, is doing particularly fine work and takes donations online.)

Last month, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department refused an interview request, releasing only a statement of concern. But on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Canadian Press: “As concerned as we are about the Olympics, that’s nothing. That’s two, three, four weeks for the athletes and participants and the visitors. This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year. It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence.”

The photos of those brave enough to march that are circulating on the Internet are shocking: young lesbians and gays, battered and bruised by their countrymen, the rotten eggs thrown at them streaming down their faces and clotting their hair, with the police just standing by. By now, we know where this might lead. Russia is, of course, the country of Tolstoy and Prokofiev – but also of Stalin and, yes, Putin.

If the show must go on, let it go on before minimal houses, let the cameras pan over empty arenas, and let Putin and his ilk draw a message from that.

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