This week the 22nd Winter Olympics opened in the Russian city of Sochi, amidst ongoing controversy over the Russian government’s stance on LGBT rights. Last year, Putin’s government introduced a law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ which has led to continued discrimination towards LGBT people. The issue has become unavoidable: even while the president of the IOC spoke about the immortal value of tolerance at the opening ceremony, 14 LGBT activists were arrested in St Petersburg and Moscow’s Red Square while protesting.
So how do we tackle homophobia in countries such as Russia? Is boycotting a major sports event the answer? Those such as Nick Clegg and various LGBT campaigners believe so. It is evidently a popular opinion, given that the Facebook group, ‘Boycott Sochi 2014’ has over 18,000 likes. However, I don’t believe that boycotting Sochi is the answer. That’s not to say you definitively shouldn’t if you feel morally compelled to do so, but in order to affect real change, I don’t think turning off your TV or not attending the Games is enough. Rather than refusing to interact with those who we disagree with, I think the way to tackle entrenched homophobia is to engage with countries like Russia through positive representation of the LGBT community.
Thankfully, this is already happening. Chevrolet’s adverts that premiered during the opening ceremony included LGBT families and featured the tagline, ‘while what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what it looks like has.’ Google also showed its support by changing its logo to feature the gay pride rainbow on the day of the opening ceremony. I really think that with this kind of action will come growing acceptance, even if it takes a generation or two.
Support shouldn’t just come from companies, but also those in the public eye. Lady Gaga, Madonna and Barack Obama (to name a few) have all condemned Russia’s laws, while Elton John even tackled the issue at a performance in Moscow. While advertising is important, we should never underestimate the potency of celebrity status as a tool for fighting discrimination. Instead of turning off your TV, maybe the answer for the rest of us is to openly support LGBT rights just as fervently as those with a huge worldwide platform.
Another reason why I do not support a boycott is that it means athletes feel obliged to give up their life’s work in order to make a symbolic gesture. They shouldn’t have to bear this responsibility when they’ve trained for so long for such a prestigious event. There is far more to be gained if athletes attend the Games and stand defiantly against Russia on this issue.
We must remember that Russia is just one country that attacks LGBT rights. Nigeria, Uganda, Iran and others are also hideously discriminatory. The Sochi Olympics is one example which has brought LGBT rights to the forefront of politics. Now that more of us are listening, let’s confront all these countries head on instead of distancing ourselves from them through modes of protest such as boycotts.