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The build-up to the Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi has been overshadowed by Western criticism of a new law banning gay “propaganda”.
Ahead of the Games, gay-rights activists spoke to the Associated Press this week about life for gay people in Russia – and the opportunities the Games may afford to speak out about their treatment.
In June, Russia’s parliament passed a contentious law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”.
Despite seven months of international protests, the law remains in place – and many activists see it as forbidding almost any public expression of gay rights.
Activist Tatyana Shmankevich is based in the city of Saint Petersburg.
She believes the controversial new law has distorted some people’s view of society and made some Russians “more frightened, especially those who have children”.
But, she adds, other Russians understand that “it’s impossible to keep living like this and have opened their eyes to the fact that discrimination really exists”.
Indeed, many Russians realise that “they can’t just keep out of it, even if they are not activists”, Shmankevich says.
Shmankevich is one of the organisers of the LGBT film festival “Side by Side”, which anti-gay activists last year repeatedly criticised as “homosexual propaganda”.
One of its opponents was Vitaly Milonov, a member of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the author of the controversial new law.
“This kind of information is unacceptable from the perspective of historic traditions and traditional order of our society,” he told the AP this week, adding that the law only reflects the relation of the Russian society towards “spiritual and mental illnesses” – meaning homosexuality.
Some activists see the Winter Olympics in Sochi – which start on 7 February – as a chance to condemn the new law and draw attention to rights violations in Russia.
Activist Nikolay Alexeyev is the leader of the Moscow Gay Pride.
He told the AP this week that “nothing prevents someone from unveiling a rainbow flag during the opening and closing ceremonies” or from expressing an opinion at an Olympics medal ceremony or news conference that’s being broadcast around the world.
“All these things can happen, all these things can be done,” he said, adding that “this is much more effective” than merely boycotting the Games.
Indeed, several international activists are planning to travel to Sochi to team up with sympathetic athletes to protest against the anti-gay law during the Olympic Games.
The International Olympic Committee’s new president, Thomas Bach, has warned athletes that they are barred from political gestures while on the podium or at official Olympic venues – but he has also advised them that they are free to make political statements at news conferences before or after the events.
For his part, President Vladimir Putin has promised that athletes and spectators in Sochi will not face any discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And yet, with Russia firmly in the spotlight in the month ahead, further scrutiny of the new law and the treatment of gay people in Russia is all but certain.
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