LGBT Rights at the Olympics
The opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia begin in exactly six months and concern over Russia’s human rights record is mounting. Significant questions have been raised, from the treatment of migrant workers employed to build the Olympic facilities to Russia’s engagement with the Syrian regime, but perhaps no issue has caused as big an outpouring (literally) as Russia’s discrimination and mistreatment against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Earlier this summer Vladimir Putin signed two laws that many fear will have a dangerous effect on the LGBT community in Russia. The first prohibits “public insults to the feelings of religious believers,” though provides little specific detail as to what may or may not be banned. The second bans the promotion of information about “non-traditional” sexual behavior. In a statement released shortly before the bill’s passage Graeme Reid, the director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch, said the law “is regressive and discriminatory, and represents a threat to human rights standards in Russia and internationally.”
In advance of the Sochi Olympic Games many have raised concerns about both the safety of LGBT athletes, staff and supporters who may be visiting the country and the international community’s reaction to these laws in general. While the International Olympic Committee has stated that it has received assurances from the Russian government that LGBT athletes will not be targeted at the games, the Russian Minister of Sport released a recent statement that “No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.”
This announcement has sparked outcry from the LGBT rights community in the United States and Canada, demanding that IOC secure the protection of LGBT athletes and that the world capitalize on this moment to urge change in Russia’s repressive laws. Joining in this call are members of Congress who have recently introduced a resolution aimed at the IOC on this issue. Earlier this week, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) – who is also the lead sponsor on the critical civil rights legislation the Employment Non-Discrimination Act – promised to introduce a resolution in the Senate demanding that the IOC formally denounce Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and receive a guarantee that LGBT athletes and spectators will not be discriminated against.
Discrimination and harassment during the Olympic Games is something with deep and tragic resonances with Jewish community. Though our opinions on how to respond to human rights abuses in Olympic host countries may differ, the Reform Jewish Movement’s stance on LGBT rights is unequivocal. If all people are created in the image of God, then certainly they must all be treated with a modicum of dignity and respect. If the Olympics are truly about international community and solidarity, then we must ensure that our LGBT brothers and sisters are included in that community.