Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ “Ask A Transwoman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist— There’s this question I’ve been getting a lot for the last few months, and until a couple of days ago, I honestly didn’t have an answer. The question is: should we boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in response to Russia’s anti-LGBT “propaganda” law? Since you’re reading a paper called The Rainbow Times, I assume you’re already pretty conversant with the details. In the off chance you aren’t aware; maybe you’ve been driving a team of sled-dogs across the Arctic tundra. This law, which claims to ban the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, effectively criminalizes all LGBT activism and public displays of affection or identity. This falls within the context of a country where homophobia and transphobia appear to be quite rampant and pervasive. Still, despite this being a clearly awful situation, until now I haven’t had a clear answer about whether or not we should boycott the Sochi Olympic Games. It’s a far more complex question than it might seem to be on the surface. Let’s consider the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Hitler was reaching the height of his power in Germany. Then, as now, there were those who called for a boycott and those who opposed one. The main argument was that the Olympics should not reflect political views. That same argument can be heard today. It has also been argued, perhaps more convincingly, that the athletes who participate in the Olympics have trained for this event for years, often their entire lives, and that depriving them of this opportunity would make all that effort come to naught. Given the nature of athletics, it’s a small window and most never get the same chance again. I have heard this argument movingly offered by our own LGBT athletes. They say they would rather show their opposition to Russia’s discriminatory laws by competing proudly as openly LGBT athletes and being the best they can be while the world is watching.
In 1936 we chose to ignore the plight of Jewish people in Germany in favour of “good sportsmanship.” We all know how well that worked. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the same mistake today.
To return to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there is the fine example of African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens, who left Germany as the most successful athlete of those Olympics with four gold medals. He himself argued against the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. It is also worth noting that the Olympics can be an excellent stage for protests as they are heavy with symbolism and historical significance. The Black Power salute defiantly given by athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Summer Olympics is an excellent example of this. Though both were suspended from the U.S. team, this has gone on to become an indelible image of protest. Given these arguments and examples, it is possible that the Sochi Olympics could become the scene of some extremely powerful and highly visible protests on the part of international LGBT athletes and spectators, but at what risk? Taking the example of Smith and Carlos above, protesters certainly risk expulsion from the games, if not worse. In addition, despite the assurances of the Russian government, any LGBT attendees of the games risk running afoul of these horrific Russian laws, not to mention danger to their physical safety. Still, the question is complex, and despite its importance to the larger LGBT community, not one I thought was appropriate for this column.
Therefore, I can sit on the fence no longer. We can no longer afford to be indecisive. I believe we must not only demand a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, but we must do everything in our power to help our TBLG brothers, sisters and others in Russia. It has become impossible to choose the path of passive protest any longer.
That is, until this past week, when news of the suicide of a Russian transgender woman began to surface on my news feeds. Because her employers feared violating the new law, Dasha Shtern was fired from her job. She had also recently been rejected by her parents and kicked out of her home. There are many who are calling her the first casualty of Russia’s anti-LGBT law, but I somehow doubt this. While researching this story, I came across a video I had missed of another trans woman being beaten and humiliated by a gang of men in a public park. A visit to YouTube will fill an entire evening with disturbing images of similar atrocities being gleefully committed against Russian gay people, particularly gay youth, and often in full view and with the at least tacit support of the general public. Therefore, I can sit on the fence no longer. We can no longer afford to be indecisive. I believe we must not only demand a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, but we must do everything in our power to help our TBLG brothers, sisters and others in Russia. It has become impossible to choose the path of passive protest any longer. How many more trans people must die while we hope to see who is the fastest skier? How many gay youths will be beaten as we consider whether rainbow pins on athletes will be an appropriate and effective statement? In 1936 we chose to ignore the plight of Jewish people in Germany in favor of “good sportsmanship.” We all know how well that worked. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the same mistake today. *Lorelei Erisis is an activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: [email protected].