Though his remarks were offered up as a kind of reassurance that gay athletes participating in next month’s Sochi Olympic games need not fear for their safety, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday instead added fuel to a long-simmering international fracas.
“One can feel calm and at ease,” he said. Fine and good. The problem came in the follow-up: “Just leave kids alone, please.”
The ominous request is consistent with his government’s focus on preventing acceptance of homosexuality. Last year, a harsh new law intended to block “propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices” was imposed, serving as a useful means to ban gay rights parades and discourage any kind of public discussion about the issue. Plenty of controversy followed, but as the games are set to proceed in a matter of weeks, the question becomes one of how Russian citizens interpret their president’s remarks. One of the more troubling recent Russian sociocultural devlopments is the rise of the Occupy-Pedofilyay movement: a gang of rightwing thugs who brutalize gay youth and record their exploits on camera. There was a surge of this activity in response to last year’s law, a string of beatings and routine harassment. It’s not hard to imagine them getting similarly inspired by Putin’s remarks. Of course, he likely wants to avoid a PR disaster where one or several teams are so outraged by anti-gay violence that they refuse to participate at the last moment. And yet he clearly has not been bothered by most international leaders’ refusal to participate directly, sending delegations instead.
Most likely, the massive security apparatus put in place will ensure the safety of all athletes, gay or otherwise. Russia’s gay citizens, on the other hand, are still left out in the cold (so to speak).