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COMMENTARY: We must protect our Olympic athletes from Putin and his anti-gay Russia

(Editor's note: Since this column was published, Russia has announced that the "gay propaganda" law will be enforced during the Sochi 2014 Olympics.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law anti-gay legislation that imposes huge fines for providing information about the LGBT community to minors, from holding a rainbow flag in public or for holding gay pride rallies or parades.

Any individual guilty breaking the homophobic law will be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($156 U.S.), and any company or media organization will be fined up to 1 million rubles ($31,000 U.S.).

Same-gender couples holding hands is now illegal as is anyone making a statement in support of the LGBT community – anything Putin’s government feels is “homosexual propaganda” is now illegal in Putin’s Russia.

Foreign citizens (including U.S. Olympic athletes) who are arrested under the new law can be deported or - they can be jailed for up to 15 days and then deported.

This week a bipartisan group of 83 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to protect LGBT people who will be at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. They asked for protection of LGBT athletes, staff and spectators during the Sochi Olympics.

San Diego has five congressional districts with Representatives:

1. District 49 – Darryl Issa (R)
2. District 50 – Duncan Hunter (R)
3. District 51 – Juan Vargas (D)
4. District 52 – Scott Peters (D)
5. District 53 – Susan Davis (D)

Only one of these lawmakers signed this bipartisan letter – Rep. Susan Davis. She was the only one who cared enough to sign her name to this letter.
Go to this website and find out who your representative is, and if it’s not Susan Davis – write them an email and ask them why they didn’t sign. Or leave them a phone message. Let your voice be heard.

There is much confusion on the part of the Russians as to whether or not the anti-gay laws would be enforced for visiting athletes and guests.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said that athletes and spectators attending the Sochi Games would be held accountable, but one day later, Igor Ananskikh, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Physical Culture, Sport and Youth Policy Committee, said “a decision has been made not to raise this issue during the Olympics.”

I don’t know about you, but I certainly would not feel all warm and fuzzy stepping foot off the plane and on to Russian soil.

I know the LGBT athletes want to compete – and there is a part of me that wants them to compete – win – and stand on that podium with their USA heads held high and proud.

There is also a part of me that wants nothing evil to happen to these kids, by ignorant, intolerant Russian fanatics. Is a sports medal really worth your life?

If the athletes must go – they must be protected. The letter to Secretary of State John Kerry is as follows:

Dear Secretary Kerry:

We are writing to you regarding the troubling implications of a recently-enacted Russian law criminalizing actions or statements deemed to be in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. In light of the fact that the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games are scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, we would like to know what diplomatic measures the State Department is planning to take to ensure that American LGBT athletes, staff and spectators, and their supporters, are not arrested, detained or otherwise penalized during the Sochi Games.

The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin on June 30th, will penalize any individuals or groups found to be publicly supportive of LGBT equality. Press reports have indicated that punishable offenses would include public acknowledgment of one’s orientation, displays of affection between same-sex partners, statements in support of LGBT rights, and the use of symbols such as rainbows that are attributed to the LGBT community. Foreign nationals found to be in violation of the law could be arrested and detained for up to 15 days.

According to the Organizing Committee of XXII Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Sochi, Sochi will be host to over 40,000 athletes, volunteers, and members of the press for the duration of the Games. An additional 75,000 spectators are expected to visit Sochi daily during that time. With the Olympics only seven months away, we are deeply concerned about the impact of the new anti-LGBT law on LGBT Russians, the Olympic community and supporters of LGBT equality.

We are particularly troubled because while the newly signed law is the most recent and most extreme codification of Russia’s maltreatment of its LGBT citizens, it is also part of larger trend of anti-LGBT actions in Russia. In the last month, the Russian government also enacted a law banning foreign same-sex couples and single people from nations that have marriage equality from adopting Russian children. Hate crimes and violent attacks against the LGBT community have been reported, including the murders of two gay men earlier this year. In 2012, Moscow instituted a hundred-year ban on LGBT pride parades, a ban that was deemed illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, but which nevertheless resulted in the arrest and detention of seventeen LGBT activists for displaying rainbow flags. Russia’s record of anti-LGBT legislation and persecution pose serious concerns for the safety of LGBT Sochi Olympic participants and spectators.

On July 17th, the International Olympic Committee issued a statement, obtained by the Windy City Times, acknowledging that the newly-enacted law is contradictory to its policy of non-discrimination and pledging to “work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media.” However, the IOC recognized that it is not equipped to address the issue fully, stating “[w]ider political issues in the country are best dealt with by other international organizations more suited to this endeavor.”

We applaud the State Department’s commitment to ensuring that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons abroad, and the actions your agency has already taken to communicate concerns about the overall direction on LGBT rights in Russia directly to the Russian government. In light of the importance of U.S. leadership on LGBT issues, and the quickly-approaching Sochi Games, we urge the State Department to determine the appropriate course of action to assure the safety and well being of LGBT and LGBT— supporting individuals involved in or attending the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Paralympics. We look forward to hearing from you regarding what efforts have been undertaken, especially efforts undertaken in coordination with other foreign governments, and are committed to working together with you on this issue.

SDGLN Contributor Barb Hamp Weicksel was born in 1952 in Pennsylvania and moved to California in the early 1980s, where she met her partner Susan. They've been together some 30 years and share the love of Susan's four children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her blog, Barb's Gift of Gab, can be found HERE.