Guest Blogger

The Olympic Games: A 'Political' Opportunity for Unity

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 08, 2013 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: anti-gay legislation, Eastern Europe, Olympics, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Winter Olympics

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Warren J. Blumenfeld is associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

sochi-olympic-rings.jpgBefore and during the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, the Nazi command ordered massive raids on suspected homosexuals in bars and throughout the city to present a "morally clean" Germany to visiting athletes, journalists, and tourists. However, on July 20, 1936, Heinrich Himmler (the architect of Germany's anti-homosexual policies and pogroms) ordered that foreign homosexuals not be arrested to enhance the nation's image and to circumvent any possible boycott by participating countries and individual athletes.

"For the coming weeks, I forbid the taking of action, including interrogation or summons, against any foreigners under Paragraph 175 [the anti-homosexual section of the German Penal Code] without my personal approval." Following the Olympics, however, Himmler tightened the grip on German homosexuals resulting in mass incarceration for up to two years imprisonment, and eventually detention in concentration campus.

Since the Nazi did not keep detailed records, and toward the closing days of the war, destroyed many documents, we will never know the exact numbers they tortured and killed. However, historians estimate that the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, investigated approximately 90,000 suspected homosexuals, and sentenced approximately 50,000 men under Paragraph 175 and its expanded version, Paragraph 175a, while deporting many to concentration camps. Though Paragraphs 175 and 175a did not apply to women, the Nazis interned a number of lesbians on "political" and "vagrancy" charges. Very few of these men and women survived.

As the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," we are witnessing similar policies and actions, this time taken by the Russian government in its latest crackdown on Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their supporters.

Russia and the Winter Olympics

This past June, the Russian Parliament passed and President Vladimir Putin signed its "anti-homosexual propaganda" law specifically targeting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors," including public discussions, events that "promote" LGBT rights, such as Pride Marches, and public displays of affection by same-sex couples that children might see or hear. Visitors to Russia arrested and charged under the law face 15 days imprisonment and deportation.

Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the Russian government has given them assurances the law will be set aside during the 2014 Winter Olympic games to be hosted in the Russian resort city of Sochi, St. Petersburg, Russia's politician Vitaly Milonov, who helped pass an earlier version of the anti-homosexual law in that city, stated recently to the Russian Interfax news agency: "If a law has been passed by Parliament and signed by the president, the government has no right or powers to reverse it."

The Russian government does not stand alone within Eastern Europe in its crackdown on LGBT people, both legislatively and socially. Elected officials in Ukraine, as well as in several areas of the current Russian Federation, Lithuania, Moldova, and Hungary have either passed or are in the process of shepherding through the legislative pipelines a number of bills (the so-called "Anti-Gay Propaganda" laws and draft laws) that further restrict human rights of LGBT people and ban informational efforts to educate and raise LGBT visibility and awareness.

In St. Petersburg, Russia's elected officials approved last year a law criminalizing "the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors," mandating fines up to $16,000 on individuals and up to $160,000 on organizations. Before the Russian Parliament passed its nationwide "anti-gay propaganda" law, similar laws were in effect in the Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, and Ryanzan regions of Russia. In addition, the Siberian regional government also added a ban on "gay propaganda."

LGBT Rights in Lithuania

Lithuania's Seimas (Parliament) in 2009 passed a nationwide law prohibiting the media and schools from distributing public information that has an adverse effect on the mental, physical, or intellectual health and moral development of young people, including the dissemination of information that promotes violence, suicide, and homosexuality, and specifically, that "agitates for homosexual, bisexual relations, or polygamy." Both in 2007 and 2008, authorities in the cities of Vilnius and Kowno barred a "tolerance march" sponsored by the European Commission.

In Moldova, the Balti city legislature ratified a law against "gay propaganda." Last year, the Hungarian far-right political party, Jobbik, also submitted an anti-gay propaganda bill to the country's parliament. The bill would have banned "promotion of sexual deviation" targeting LGBT people as well as banning pedophilic behavior. Also last year, a police commission in Budapest turned down a request to allow an annual LGBT Pride march. A Metropolitan Court overturned a similar ban the previous year.

Attacks in Ukraine

On June 20, 2011, six members of the Ukrainian Parliament from all the major political parties introduced a draft law (a bill), No. 8711 titled "On Introduction of Changes to Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine (regarding protection of children's rights on the safe information sphere)." The draft law restricted basic human and civil rights of LGBT including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. This bill, if it had passed, would have amended the Ukrainian Criminal Code in sections "On Protection of Public Morals," "On Print Mass Media," "On Television and Radio," and "On Publishing," thereby making it a criminal offense to promote "propaganda of homosexualizm" by distributing information and the use of public broadcasting. Violation of Ukraine's criminal code carries penalties ranging from a fine to 5 years imprisonment.

Though Ukraine's Parliament decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, within the draft law, authors gave their justification for its enactment as follows: The law is "designed to strengthen anti-homosexual propaganda in Ukraine and ensure the legal framework for prosecution of violations of public order and morality of the Ukrainian society. The spread of homosexualizm is a threat to national security, as it leads to the epidemic of HIV/AIDS and destroys the institution of family and can cause a demographic crisis. To address these demographic challenges, it is necessary to create conditions to direct public policy to improve the nation's morals, including introduction of effective mechanisms for strengthening family values and preventing the spread of manifestations of moral depravity in the media. It is moral depravity and so-called sexual freedom promoted in Ukraine, that pose a threat to the above values - health, family institution, the constitutional rights of fathers, mothers, children, freedom of speech and religion, and a stable demographic situation."

The draft law defined "propaganda of homosexuality" as "any activity that is purposed for and/or takes the form of intentional dissemination of any affirmative information about homosexuality that can damage the physical and mental health of a child as well as his/her moral and spiritual development, instill in him/her false ideas about the equal social value of traditional and non-traditional marital relations, and influence his/her future choice of social orientation." This can take the form of public as well as nonpublic "propaganda" including "holding of rallies, parades, pickets, demonstrations, and other mass public events,...lecturing, giving of thematic talks or elective classes, organization of interactive games, conducting of educational work, or holding of other educational events concerning homosexuality,...dissemination through media outlets of messages or articles about homosexuality, or of any appeals to adopt a homosexual lifestyle...."

Though the draft law was eventually tabled in 2011, Vadim Kolisnichenko and Verkhovna Rada, members of the Ukrainian Parliament, resubmitted it as No. 10290 on March 30, 2012 titled "On Prohibition of Propaganda of Homosexuality Aimed at Children."

On Sunday, May 20 last year, organizers of the first scheduled Pride march planned for Ukraine's capital city, Kiev, were compelled to cancel the event over safety concerns as an estimated 500 neo-Nazi nationalists threatened to disrupt the proceedings. A group of masked thugs savagely attacked activist and organizer Svyatoslav Sheremet of the group Gay Forum of Ukraine, following a media briefing regarding the march's cancellation called just before it was due to start. Also, the previous day, vandals destroyed a photo exhibit that showcased the lives of LGBT families in Ukraine under the former Soviet Republic. This came shortly following the seventh consecutive prohibition by Russian authorities of Moscow Pride activities.

Boycotting Russia

Though many individuals and businesses are boycotting Russian products, such as Stolichnaya vodka, and engaging in acts of civil disobedience, for example, by pouring Russian vodka on the pavement outside the Russian consulate in New York City, some are calling for individual athletes and the entire U.S. Olympic delegation to stay out of next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The International Olympic Committee issued a statement in response to the Russian government's assurances that LGBT visitors and their supporters will not be subjected to the "anti-homosexual propaganda" when they attend the games. The IOC statement read in part: "The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle."

While this is a good first step, the IOC must take firmer actions, including condemnation for the law and the Russian government's crackdown, and coordinating individual and joint statements by IOC member countries in response to Russia's apartheid-style laws.

The Olympics Is Inherently Political

I do not, however, support a boycott of the games for many reasons. While economic pressures, like product boycotts may prove effective in certain instances, I believe an Olympic games boycott will not significantly alter the plight of LGBT rights supporters in Russia. The U.S. Olympic boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter's direction, in response to the Soviet invasion in 1979 of Afghanistan, did not in itself noticeably deter the Soviets nor did it substantially shorten their occupation.

What the boycott did achieve, unfortunately, was to punish the talented and committed athletes by preventing them from showing what they could accomplish for themselves and for the United States if only given the chance. For many of them, the President's actions entirely jeopardized or significantly circumvented their prospects for rich careers in the fields of sport.

Some say the Olympics must remain outside and above politics. I argue, on the other hand, that the games are inherently political by highlighting the funding and training procedures, attitudes, sometimes the biases, and always the foundational structures of the host countries' and member nations' political systems. What can be more "political" than taking a group of international economic, cultural, religious, and philosophical rivals off the battle field and into the sports arena? What can be more "political" than to bring young people together in competition and camaraderie rather than in mortal combat by invading or defending a piece of land and its people and resources?

If President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had prevented the United States from engaging in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the world would never have experienced the utter joy and righteous pride as James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens completely undermined Nazi claims of so-called "Aryan" physical and intellectual superiority when this magnificent champion literally ran away with four gold medals (the most of any athlete that summer) in his track and field events while leaving the supposed "super human" blonde German athletes in the dust.

What could have been more "political?"

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