Photo by Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty ImagesWhat an awesome sight it was, all those Olympians holding hands with teammates of the same gender, in quiet but unmistakable defiance of Russia’s anti-gay laws and the International Olympic Committee’s stated ban on political protest. Every time the camera zoomed in on an athlete, you could see that almost everyone was wearing at least one item of red “Principle 6” clothing—a T-shirt, a hat, or a scarf bearing the words of the Olympic Charter’s nondiscrimination guarantee. The rainbow-colored gloves everyone wore were also a nice touch.
All right, none of that is true or even particularly funny. Last summer—about half a year before the Olympic Games opened in Sochi and soon after the American gay rights establishment became aware of the Kremlin’s unprecedented campaign of anti-gay hate—a number of people debated how the West, and the United States in particular, should act during the games. Some activists argued for a boycott. Chess champion Garry Kasparov said the athletes should go, but others should stay away. “The Sochi boycott that is required is a boycott by world leaders, by celebrities and sponsors, by CEOs and fans,” he wrote. “Do not come to Sochi to sit next to Putin in his stately pleasure dome, pretending it is a world apart from the police state he has created. Let the stadiums sit vacant, especially the VIP sections Putin hopes to fill with presidents and prime ministers.” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two members of Pussy Riot, called for an all-out boycott as soon as they were released from prison last December. I also argued for a boycott whenever I had the opportunity.
A majority of Russian activists, however, found it impossible to advocate for a boycott of the games. Some thought it was defeatist, and others argued such a stand would be perceived as unpatriotic and cause a backlash. With their guidance, Western organizations that were starting to focus on Russia opted for a “speak out, don’t walk out” strategy. In interminable meetings and conference calls, they tried to devise ingenious ways of getting around Russian and IOC prohibitions and get pro-gay messages out. A group called Pride House International floated the idea of a movable pride house in the Olympic Village. An organization called Athlete Ally and others talked about devising a hand gesture to symbolize gay solidarity. Human Rights Campaign and All Out teamed with American Apparel to make and market Principle 6 apparel. Human Rights Watch and others lobbied the major Olympic sponsors to use their merchandise and advertising space in Russia to speak out against anti-gay discrimination. Melissa Etheridge wrote a song called “Uprising of Love” and sang it in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and a whole coalition of celebrities gathered under this name to help LGBTQ Russians.
It all failed. Sure, American Apparel sold the T-shirts, hats, and bags, and Etheridge sold the song, and money was raised, and representatives of Athlete Ally and Human Rights First went to Sochi. But nothing happened there. The movable Pride House idea was nixed by both the Russians and the IOC. None of the competing athletes agreed to wear Principle 6 clothing. Olympic sponsors politely took meetings with human-rights advocates and proceeded to do nothing. (AT&T, which got a lot of cheap, good publicity for its LGBTQ-supportive ad, is a sponsor of the U.S. team, not of the Olympic Games itself and did not run the ad in Russia, where it happens not to be represented—unlike the actual Olympic sponsors, most of whom have major interests in the country.) Etheridge canceled a scheduled pre-Olympic appearance on Russia’s only independent TV channel. Indeed, international media attention to the Kremlin’s homophobic campaign seems to have had a major chilling effect on Olympic athletes and spectators, who traveled to Sochi with a set of largely unfounded fears, which kept them from doing anything at all.
Oh, and the multicolor-tipped gloves, which some members of the Greek team wore during the opening and closing ceremonies, turned out to be the colors of the Olympic rings, not the rainbow flag.
On the day of the opening ceremony, LGBTQ activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg staged protests in their own cities. In Moscow, a dozen hard-core direct-action veterans went to Red Square and sang the Russian national anthem while holding small rainbow flags. They were hauled in to the police precinct, where, over the course of the next four hours, at least four of them were beaten and threatened with rape. Some of the people who came out in St. Petersburg had never before taken part in street protests. Their low-key picket also ended in police detention. Now many of those who were detained will face fines of between $285 and $570 and, quite possibly, further legal and extralegal persecution.
These brave Russian activists came out to protest because they thought that the eyes of the world were fixed on them that day and that their American activist allies in Sochi would support them by word and deed, staging their own protests and ensuring that the thousands of international correspondents in Sochi would hear of their protest and the treatment they faced. They were wrong. Their American allies watched the opening ceremony, socialized with Team U.S.A., and visited the famed Sochi gay bar. Their American allies failed them.
Trying to help activists who are putting themselves in danger in a police state is different from supporting the fight for, say, marriage equality in the United States. For Americans, the kind of activism required is not much more difficult and is not at all scary—but it is definitely not about selling American Apparel T-shirts or singing songs. First and foremost, working with LGBTQ activists in Russia has to involve ensuring that their names and their individual arrests and court hearings are well-publicized in the Western media. It also means ensuring that their fines are paid: The point of those extremely high fines is to open the way for further prosecution for nonpayment. Only if Russian authorities know that the world is watching the specific individuals they are targeting will the LGBT activists on the ground be relatively safe—which is to say, alive and unlikely to face long prison sentences in the near future. Meanwhile, as the founder of an online community for LGBTQ youth faced a court hearing on charges of “homosexual propaganda” on Feb. 20, American groups strategized about their social-network presence during the closing ceremony. (The State Department, however, spoke out about the case, which is the likely reason the court dropped the charges.)
The Sochi Games were the U.S. gay rights movement’s first real attempt to venture into international work. It was an embarrassment. If U.S. groups continue to do nothing but stage fundraisers and strategy sessions, it will be a disgrace.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.
Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and the author of the Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead).