OK, so LGBTQ people don’t have it perfect in the United States. Marriage equality has not been secured in all 50 states and U.S. territories. The concept of “transgender health care” remains an oxymoron for many transpeople. Congress is still engaging in a decades-long debate about whether to grant employment protections for LGBTQ people.
But you know, it could be worse. What if NO legal recognition existed for same-sex couples? What if NO laws existed that protect LGBTQ people against discrimination or harassment anywhere? What if you could be thrown in jail for disseminating educational material about LGBTQ people, or fined for something as simple as clicking a Facebook “like” button about some LGBTQ issue?
Well, that’s how it is for queer people in Russia. And Sochi, Russia is where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. In case you’re wondering, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko made clear last week that we shouldn’t expect these laws to be suspended just because the Olympics are taking place. In fact, these were his exact words:
No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.
That’s a pretty formidable warning, in my opinion. And my sense is that it’s not just the government that would hold people accountable. According to 2013 polling data, public support of same-sex marriages is at 16% (compared to about 54% in the United States). Additionally, 74% believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Given those attitudes, I wouldn’t just be afraid of law enforcement; I’d be wary of how I might be treated by the locals.
So it’s not surprising that there’s been a call for the United States and other nations to boycott the 2014 Olympics. The rationale is three-fold: to protect the safety and well-being of LGBTQ athletes and spectators; to make clear that anti-LGBTQ policies won’t be tolerated; and to pressure the country of Russia to consider repealing these oppressive laws. But this call to action is hotly controversial. Some say it’s a necessary move. Others think it’s pointless, and won’t make a difference. And still others feel as if the athletes are the ones who end up being penalized the most.
So is it pointless, or a necessary move? It’s true that certain conditions need to be present in order for a boycott to be effective. According to Brayden King, a researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, if a boycott is going to pack any kind of meaningful punch, the company, organization, or entity they’re targeting (in this case, the Russian government) needs to be vulnerable to change. For example, the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was effective because (1) it hit the city of Montgomery below the belt financially, and (2) it was, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel’s back, propelling the country into the modern civil rights movement. Montgomery, Alabama – and the United States – were vulnerable to change.
But is Russia vulnerable to change in the same way? Given that several of their anti-gay policies were passed very recently – and given the low level of acceptance of LGBTQ people in the general populace – my answer would be no. In fact, Vitaly Mutko issued his statements directly in response to the International Olympic Committee’s call for non-discrimination of sexual and gender minorities. Clearly, Russia stands by its laws, and is prepared to defend them. If the goal is to get Russia to eliminate its anti-LGBTQ policies, it’s doubtful that a boycott would have any effect whatsoever in achieving that goal. In fact, if we use history as our guide, the only thing the Soviet Union did in response to the 1980 boycott was to go tit-for-tat and boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Moreover, there’s concern about how a boycott would affect the athletes themselves – the people who have spent enormous amounts of time, energy, money, blood, sweat, and tears training for their shot at Olympic gold. According to researchers Jane Crossman and Ron Lappage, who interviewed 24 Canadian coaches about the effects of the 1980 Olympic boycott, being denied the opportunity to compete caused the athletes considerable distress. They were angry. They experienced grief reactions. They felt powerless – especially because the Canadian government had made the decision for them. They felt like they were cheated out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and being told that they could participate in alternative competitions was hardly a consolation prize. Fast-forward to the present, and we already have several athletes – including figure skater Johnny Weir – who have made quite clear that they oppose a boycott and want to compete.
So I don’t have a clear answer as to whether or not a boycott is the way to go. But I do have several thoughts. So here they are:
Thought #1: Activism can occur in many forms. A strategically planned boycott can be very effective. Yet, to borrow the words of researcher Brayden King, “Boycotts are a weapon of the weak” – a passive form of activism, in his opinion. In contrast, consider openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup’s decision to go ahead and compete in Sochi – and to wear a rainbow pin while doing so. It’s a risky move, to be sure, for simply wearing a pin could land Skjellerup in jail. But it’s brave, bold, honest – and certainly not weak. Bringing your same-sex spouse to the Games and holding hands publicly would be a seriously bold move.
Thought #2: The effects of activism aren’t always immediately apparent. There may be zero interest on the part of Russian officials to repeal anti-LGBTQ laws. However, if the U.S. ultimately decided to boycott the Olympics, and if enough nations join in and generate good momentum, the resulting bandwagon effect might effectively advance pro-LGBTQ policies here in the U.S. and in other nations.
Thought #3: Some action needs to be taken – whether or not it involves a boycott. What if the entire U.S. Olympic team decided to join forces and collectively wear rainbow pins? What if a large-scale LGBTQ ally movement took place in Sochi during the Games? The possibilities are endless. But it’s clear to me that silence in the face of oppression is unacceptable.
Activists are creative. We find ways of getting the message across. And if the message isn’t heard in one form, we find another way to convey it. It might occur in the form of a boycott. But it might also occur in the form of something even more creative, powerful, and effective.