A few months ago, Russia’s autocratic President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation that was passed almost unanimously by the Russian Duma. This new law bans so-called “gay propaganda” under the guise of protecting Russian children from the pernicious influence of nontraditional relationships. In effect, the laws’ implications will be broad. A newspaper article about gay issues must contain a disclaimer. A public health campaign targeting the gay community would be illegal. Two men or two women holding hands in public could be illegal (never mind if they have the nerve to wave a flag or stage a kiss-in). Much of the world has reacted to the law with disgust.
This law is abusive — it not-so-tacitly lends credence to the vicious and violent homophobia rampant in Russia today. In response, many have suggested protests and boycotts. Owners of gay clubs and bars, for example, say we should all stop drinking Stoli vodka. Some online petitioners are demanding that the International Olympic Committee should force Russia to repeal its legislation. And actor Stephen Fry and others have advocated that nations boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics.
But the way to respond is not with pettiness or empty symbolism. You don’t change minds by being as petty as someone is cruel. You change minds by proving your worth.
All of the suggested protest measures, from boycotting Stoli to forgoing Sochi, are nothing more than incoherent, insubstantial, ineffective anger. Not buying a Russian vodka to protest the Russian legislature would be like not buying Budweiser to protest the war in Iraq. It ignores the source of the problem, and you won’t even make a dent in the corporation’s profits.
Telling the IOC to force Russia to change its laws is equally foolish. A combative and resurgent Russia would use the opportunity to prove to its citizenry how strong it is in the face of international pressure, and how important it is that Russia remain pure in an unfriendly world. The IOC would become an excuse for inaction, not an impetus for change.
And boycotting the Olympics is the worst idea of all. Jesse Owens, and the many Jewish athletes who accompanied him to Germany, could have chosen to skip the 1936 Olympic Games to protest Adolf Hitler’s ideology. Instead, Owens did one better: He went to Berlin and won four gold medals. He showed Hitler and the world that his theory of racial inferiority was an evil myth. Gay and lesbian athletes should do the same. A skier who is gay can fly down the slopes just as quickly as a skier who is straight. And the gay skier has an advantage that the straight skier does not: something to prove.
Give those athletes the chance to prove themselves. Shift the focus of the world away from protests against Russia’s laws, and instead focus on the achievements of gay and lesbian athletes in spite of the law. Already, athletes competing in Russia are making quietly subversive protests against the law, whether through subtle rainbow nail polish or in post-competition press conferences. Do not turn the athletes who have trained for years into a political statement the same way Russia has made a political statement out of a minority of its citizens.
Woody Allen famously said that 80 percent of life is showing up. Russia claims that homosexuality is so dangerous that it must be hidden and denigrated. Instead of agreeing to be hidden by a boycott, the ultimate display of defiance would be seeing athletes on the pedestal proud of who they are and their achievements — not as gay athletes, but as the best athletes.
For athletes who are gay, athletes who are allies and their fans, showing up ultimately shows up Russia.