The upcoming Sochi Olympics are bringing unwanted attention to Russia’s anti-gay laws.

by Alexander H. Maurice.

As the world focuses an international spotlight on Russia in the run up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the nation now more than ever should be careful about what the spotlight lands on.

While Russia’s harsh new laws have attempted to eliminate “homosexual propaganda”, they may in fact be achieving just the opposite. In response to the laws, British actress and model Tilda Swinton posed in Moscow in a public protest, holding a rainbow flag. According to the bill signed into effect on June 30 of this year, any Russian doing the same could face up to 15 days in jail, or if a visitor, deportation. Yet precisely because of that, the image of Tilda Swinton with the flag has spread far and wide around the internet and world media — much further than it would have had Russia never passed the law.

So it is with the image of the Women’s Relay athletes, Kseniya Ryzhova and Yulia Guschina kissing on the podium at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. While the women have since publicly stated that the kiss was in celebration and not in protest, the fact that it has been viewed widely around the world can be nothing but a black eye for conservative Russians who had hoped to stop the spread of “homosexual propaganda” with the new legislation.

It seems then that this law is achieving exactly the opposite of what was intended. Beyond the increased spread of homosexual imagery since the law was passed, many athletes and celebrities have chosen now to “come out of the closet”. From the American star of “Prison Break” Wentworth Miller, to Canadian speed skater Anastasia Becsis, to Australian snowboarding Olympic-hopeful Belle Brockhoff, many athletes and celebrities are choosing this time to openly discuss their sexuality. And as the Olympics near, this is just the beginning. In solidarity with those whose sexuality is oppressed in Russia, many more athletes are expected to come out of the closet in the run up to the Winter Games, and the rate of publicly identified homosexual athletes will rise to begin to reflect that of the general population.

In the build-up to the 2014 Winter Games, Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law is having a galvanizing effect around the world on the issue of sexuality rights. Non-vocal homosexuals in the rest of the world, or at least the Western world, will realize in comparison to Russians that they have nothing to lose by standing up for their sexual identity and may do so in solidarity with Russians who do not have that freedom. Or as Anastasia Becsis points out, “I could never promote the message of concealing who you are with all of this going on in Russia.”

Even in response as Russia rewrites its Olympic Truce to be more inclusive, the activists’ efforts are leading to greater international dialog on the subject and possible boycotts of the Olympics by sponsors, celebrities, and athletes. This ranges from individual rejections of offers to perform in Russia or at the Olympics by celebrities, such as American singer Cher, Bravo executive Andy Cohen, and many Broadway stars who have made their decisions public, to larger campaigns, such as that of English actor and comedian Stephen Fry who wrote an open letter to the International Olympic Committee asking them to move the 2014 Winter Olympics back to the site of the 2000 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. With both the boycotts and the many proud statements of homosexual celebrities, there is a shift occurring. It is a turning point for gay rights internationally. As more athletes, celebrities, and public figures come out in the open, acceptance will spread in their wake.

What seemed in Russia’s new legislation to be a step backward for human rights may in fact trigger a dramatic step forward due to the overwhelming response against it. We will likely see many more proud “victory kisses” on the podiums this February in Sochi. Russia’s “gay propaganda” law is becoming a catalyst for change. It is setting the stage for a Russian Rosa Parks moment and a global turning point for gay rights in the ongoing struggle for all human rights.

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