Gay 'propaganda' at Olympics risks arrest

By Shaun Walker

New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup. Photo / Michael Cunningham
New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Gay competitors in next year's Winter Olympics risk arrest by Russian police if they engage in "propaganda" for their homosexuality, Russia's Sports Minister has confirmed.

In a direct contradiction of assurances from Olympic officials that competitors and spectators attending the Sochi Olympics in February would be exempt from the controversial new law, Vitaly Mutko said competitors who flaunted their sexuality would be punished in accordance with the legislation.

"No one is forbidding a sportsperson with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if they go on to the street and start propagandising it, then of course they will be held accountable," Mutko told Russian agency R-Sport during a visit to Barcelona.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee told a Russian agency that it had "received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games".

New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup is preparing to make his stand at the Games. One of the few known openly gay competitors going to Sochi, Skjellerup told the Independent he planned to attend the Olympics and wear a rainbow gay pride pin while competing. He said he would do this even if there were the threat of arrest for doing so.

"Whatever country you are from and whomever you choose to love, you should be able to compete at the Olympics," he said.

Mutko's comments are an unequivocal rejection of these claims. "Whether they are sportspeople or not, if they go to another country, they should respect its laws," said the Sports Minister.

President Vladimir Putin signed the controversial ban on so-called "gay propaganda" into law in June, after both houses of the Russian Parliament had voted overwhelmingly for it.

The language of the law is vague, but "propaganda" of homosexuality includes statements that gay relationships are "socially equal" to straight relationships.

The key distinction is that the propaganda has to be publicised in the vicinity of minors, but gay rights activists have pointed out that this makes counselling for gay teenagers illegal along with any attempt to tell children there is nothing wrong with homosexual relations.

So far, police have taken people holding rainbow flags or placards bearing slogans calling for equal rights for gay people in public places as evidence of "propaganda". Individuals can be fined for breaching the law, while foreigners can be detained and deported from the country.

A Dutch television crew filming a documentary about gay rights was detained under the law in the northern city of Murmansk last month, though in the end they were not charged.

The crew were detained while conducting a seminar with local LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) group Centre Maximum, whose members were also arrested.

As Russia's anti-gay laws have come under increasing attention in recent days, there have been calls from some gay rights groups in the United States to boycott the Sochi Olympics, but the majority of Russian gay activists say this would be counterproductive.

Skjellerup also said he felt a boycott was the worst idea, as it would only hurt competitors. Instead, he said, the Olympics should be used to "help bring about change in Russia".

Russian gay activists have called on spectators and competitors at the Games to wear rainbow pins and hold rainbow flags in protest against the laws. Given Mutko's words, this could lead to mass arrests if the Russian authorities are really determined to implement the law.

- Independent

- NZ Herald

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