Keeping Score

Is Being Gay Protected Inside Sochi’s New Olympics Protest Zones?

The International Olympic Committee says Russia will set up designated areas for demonstrators

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The International Olympic Committee has announced that Russia will set up public protest zones in Sochi during the upcoming Winter Olympics, though the exact size and location of these zones are still to be determined.

The plan gives opponents of Russia’s human rights record — especially the country’s anti-gay law which bans the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” in the presence of minors — a designated and supposedly safe place to voice their displeasure. Still, some gay-rights advocates aren’t exactly cheering.

One positive: this move is a reversal of sorts. In August, Vladimir Putin signed a decree banning “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets” for 2 1/2 months around the Olympics and Paralympics. “Whether or not, at the end of the day, the protest zones are a good idea – the fact that they’re having to reverse course says that public pressure is working,” says Wes Adams, chief operating officer of All Out, an LGBT-rights group. “And also that the IOC has leverage with the Russian government.”

But it’s not clear that demonstrators in these zones will be able to promote “nontraditional sexual relations.” Will protestors be allowed to wave rainbow flags? Can same-sex couples kiss or hold hands? “We haven’t gotten more information from the IOC about what you can do in these protest zones or not,” says Adams. The IOC did not return a request for clarification, though IOC president Thomas Bach said during a news conference Tuesday that “everybody can express his or her free opinion.”

Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally — nonprofit that promotes respect and acceptance of LGBT people, both inside and outside the sports world — is concerned about the safety of any protestors. “I think people will be permitted to support to LGTB community within protest zones,” says Taylor. “But I have no confidence that those same people are going to be protected after they leave the protest zones.” As the Associated Press reports:

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where China came under scrutiny for its human rights record and policy on Tibet, officially sanctioned protest zones were located miles from venues and were unused.

Beijing protesters had to apply for permission to hold demonstrations. Applications had to specify the protest subject and list those demonstrators involved. Chinese officials said almost 200 applications were received but most were withdrawn or rejected.

Protests near Beijing venues were quickly quelled, and activists detained and deported.

“Are the protest zones going to make people a target by crowding them all in one spot?” says Adams. “We’ve seen an incredible increase in violence in Russia over the last six months since the passage of the anti-gay law. That’s certainly not going to go away any time soon.”

Taylor plans on being in Sochi. Will he head to one of the protest zones? “I don’t want to say anything that is going to hurt my ability to get to Sochi,” Taylor says. “So I’ll just be there to quietly observe and support the games.” He’s deadpanning. “No, there’s certainly a cost-benefit analysis I’m looking at, in terms of, you know, I think it’s very important that we take this as an opportunity to express our real disdain of these Russian propaganda laws,” says Taylor. “But also, to do so without exposing ourselves to a great deal of risk or harm. Right now, the risk outweighs the reward. That’s not to say there won’t be other opportunities at or during the games to talk about Olympic values, and why we feel that sport does not discriminate.”