An American human rights group is urging President Barack Obama to appoint lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community leaders to the official U.S. delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to show displeasure with a recently passed Russian anti-propaganda law that’s widely viewed as anti-gay.
Human Rights First, in a recent letter to senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, said “the selection of the members of the official U.S. delegations for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics is an important opportunity to signal to Russia and the world the priority the Obama administration places on equality and human dignity.”
“We urge you to ensure that the U.S. delegation include prominent LGBT people – athletes, government officials and others – as well as allies of the LGBT community who will carry a message of tolerance and respect for individual rights and human dignity.”
Obama has denounced the Russian law, but the White House has yet to decide whom it will send to Sochi to represent the United States at the games’ ceremonies. The international sporting event will be Feb. 7-23.
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“I think we’ve been very clear in our views about both the laws in place and the issues surrounding LGBT rights and our expectations of Russia when it comes to conducting the Olympics,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that prohibits individuals from promoting “homosexual behavior” and spreading “propaganda of nontraditional relations” among minors.
The law levels fines up to 5,000 rubles – about $155 U.S. dollars – on individuals and much more for officials. In addition, foreigners charged under the law could face administrative arrests for as long as 15 days.
Human rights and gay rights activists, as well as several U.S. lawmakers, say the law is part of a systemic crackdown on LGBT people in Russia. They’re uncertain how it will affect the tens of thousands of athletes and spectators – gay and straight – attending the Winter Games if they do anything that Russian officials view as advocating LGBT rights.
“I know that there are questions – can you wear a rainbow flag, a . . . pin in support of non-discrimination,” Greg Louganis, a four-time Olympic gold medalist diver who’s gay, said Friday during a Capitol Hill briefing with Russian LGBT activists about the law and the Winter Games. “A lot of that is in question.”
The International Olympic Committee and Russian government officials say the law won’t be a problem because the country is bound by Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination of any kind.
But Anastasia Smirnova, the coordinator of a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, said the IOC needed to do more.
“The Olympic committee has a responsibility to engage and communicate with relevant national authorities and organizations to make sure that the Olympic Games leave a positive legacy in the host city and host country,” Smirnova said at Friday’s briefing. “So far, the IOC has been failing to do this, and I think it’s important to stress that the IOC has been choosing to fail to do this.”
However, legendary Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy, the chairman of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, said in September that the IOC “doesn’t really have the right to discuss laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organized.”
Russia’s law appears to be prompting some world leaders to take a pass on Sochi. Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice commissioner, announced earlier this week that she won’t attend the games “as long as minorities are treated the way they are under current Russian legislation.”
Last Sunday, German President Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor, said he also wouldn’t attend, but he didn’t specify why. Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Gauck has refused to make official visits to Russia since he assumed office last year because of what he considers the country’s “deficit of rule of law” and “air of imperialism.”
Since Putin signed the propaganda law, U.S. government officials, athletes and sports fans have struggled over how to respond. Obama argued against boycotting the Winter Games. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over Russia’s activities in Afghanistan.
Louganis said he didn’t support a boycott of Sochi and had suffered backlash from within the LGBT community for his stance.
“I was able to compete on both sides of two boycotts. Most elite athletes have a very short window of opportunity,” he said Friday at the briefing. “I do believe in boycotts working when it comes to commerce and business, but when it comes to the Olympics you’re really hurting the wrong people. I didn’t know what was going on in the world when I was competing.”
Louganis urged gay and straight athletes who want to make a statement during the games to dedicate their performances to LGBT people they know.
“Most every one of them has a gay aunt, a gay uncle, a gay cousin, a gay friend, a gay somebody,” he said. “This is a personal support of the LGBT community that the IOC can’t argue with.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this article.