NEW YORK – Despite seven months of international outcry, Russia’s law restricting gay-rights activity remains in place. Yet the eclectic protest campaign has heartened activists in Russia and caught the attention of its targets – including organizers and sponsors of the Sochi Olympics that open on Feb. 7.
Over the past two weeks, two major sponsors, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, have seen some of their Sochi-related social media campaigns commandeered by gay-rights supporters who want the companies to condemn the law. Several activists plan to travel to Sochi, hoping to team up with sympathetic athletes to protest the law while in the Olympic spotlight.
And on Friday, a coalition of 40 human-rights and gay-rights groups from the U.S., Western Europe and Russia – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign – released an open letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors, urging them to denounce the law and run ads promoting equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
“LGBT people must not be targeted with violence or deprived of their ability to advocate for their own equality,” the letter said. “As all eyes turn toward Sochi, we ask you to stand with us.”
The law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, bans pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors – a measure viewed by activists as forbidding almost any public expression of gay-rights sentiment. The law cleared parliament virtually unopposed and has extensive public support in Russia.
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Since July, when they launched a boycott of Russian vodka, activists have pressed the International Olympic Committee and Olympic sponsors to call for the law’s repeal. Instead, the IOC and top sponsors have expressed general opposition to discrimination and pledged to ensure that athletes, spectators and others gathering for the Games would not be affected by the law. Putin has given similar assurances in regard to Sochi, but remains committed to the law’s broader purposes.
IOC President Thomas Bach has warned Olympic athletes that they are barred from political gestures while on medal podiums or in other official venues, but says they are free to make political statements at news conferences.
One Olympian likely to speak out is gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, who told Australia’s Courier-Mail newspaper that she plans to lambaste Putin.
“After I compete, I’m willing to rip on his ass,” she told the newspaper. “I’m not happy and there’s a bunch of other Olympians who are not happy either.”
Brockhoff is one of several Olympians promising to display the logo P6 – a reference to Principle Six of the Olympic Charter that says any form of discrimination “is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally, an organizer of the P6 campaign, is among the activists going to Sochi. He hopes that some athletes, even if wary of wearing P6 symbols, will promote them via social media.
Also heading to Sochi is Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First.
“We won’t be looking to violate the law,” he said. “But we think it’s important that human rights not get lost in the mix.”
President Barack Obama, who has criticized the Russian law, is skipping the Olympics and named a U.S. delegation that includes tennis great Billie Jean King and two other openly gay athletes.
“The only way you break down barriers is by being there and meeting people and getting these issues out on the table – doing it in an appropriate and diplomatic way,” King told The Associated Press.
In the U.S., recent protest initiatives have focused on Sochi sponsors, notably Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
In McDonald’s case, the company’s #CheersToSochi Twitter hashtag has been used by activists in tweets condemning the Russian law and assailing McDonald’s for not speaking out forcibly against it.
Similarly, activists made use of an online “I’d like to share a Coke with…” promotion to circulate images of Coke cans with labels such as “Gaybashers” and “Haters.” The gay-rights group Queer Nation posted a video online interspersing images of embattled Russian gay-rights demonstrators into Coke’s 1970s TV ad featuring the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Coke then posted a clip of the original ad on its Facebook page, drawing a flood of negative comments from gay-rights supporters. Coke has responded with declarations of support for diversity and inclusiveness, which are themes of Coke’s new Super Bowl advertising.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Ann Moore, said the company remained committed to the Olympics despite criticism from gay-rights activists.
“We share these groups’ belief in human rights, equality, diversity and dignity for all, and we respect their right to protest peacefully,” Moore said in an email. “We firmly believe, however, that supporting the Olympics focuses the world on the ideals that everyone strives for during the Games – excellence, friendship and respect.”
Becca Hary, a McDonald’s spokeswoman, made similar points.
“Social media is all about conversation. Understandably, the LGBT community is focusing its conversation on the Russian legislation,” she said in an email. “McDonald’s is proud to be a top sponsor of the Olympics; our sponsorship dollars literally help the men and women who are working to achieve their Olympic dreams.”
Hary and Moore said their companies were conferring with the IOC about human rights.
“We expect our ongoing engagement to include discussions on long-term, sustainable means for addressing human rights in the context of the Olympic Games,” Moore wrote.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, predicted that sponsors would henceforth insist that the IOC make human rights a more important factor in selection of host cities.
“There will be a reckoning after the Games,” Worden said. “Olympic sponsorship is supposed to be the goose that lays the golden eggs, but this goose is not laying golden eggs. It’s laying stinky, rotten eggs.”
The international gay-rights group All Out plans to target Olympic sponsors in demonstrations next Wednesday in several cities, including New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and St. Petersburg, Russia. Even if the Russian law endures, All Out executive director Andrew Banks considers the overall protest campaign a success.
“We’ve been able to elevate the voices and stories of Russian LGBT people … and show there are people all over the world willing to stand behind them,” he said.
While expressing appreciation for the allies abroad, prominent Russian activist Anastasia Smirnova said she feared that “dangerous self-censorship” might deter some Olympians in Sochi from taking stands against the law. In an email Friday, she also worried about a possible backlash against Russian gays once the Olympic spotlight fades.