In recent weeks, there’s been considerable debate within the LGBT and athletic communities about how to respond to Russia’s heinous new anti-gay laws. First, gay bars across the world joined together in dumping Stolichnaya vodka from their shelves, with the aim of putting economic pressure on President Vladimir Putin. More recently, some prominent LGBT activists have begun calling for the United States to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to send a powerful message to Russia.
Athlete Ally, an organization committed to fighting homophobia in sports, certainly appreciates the spirit behind these calls. President Putin’s crackdown on the LGBT community is unacceptable – blatantly violating gay people’s basic human rights. But, while we are absolutely committed to fighting back, Athlete Ally believes an Olympic boycott, while well intended, would not improve circumstances for LGBT athletes at the Olympics or for the Russian LGBT community.
One of the most powerful lessons learned in the fight for marriage equality in America is that boycotts only serve to alienate potential supporters and usually fail. A boycott will not inspire or activate the most potent potential allies in the fight for equality: athletes and fans. Recent marriage equality fights in state legislatures and at the ballot box were won by winning friends and building coalitions. That same strategy applies here.
Instead of staying away, let’s make a powerful global statement for fairness at these Olympics by showing up in full force and advocating for change. This is an opportunity to move global opinion like no other, so why shy away? What better way to stand up to bigotry than a huge movement of vocal athletes and sports fans committed to the cause of equal rights. We’re building an army of athlete allies. In Sochi, being there will make a strong, unified statement for equality.
Not only does this kind of movement bring Russia’s antigay laws to the world’s attention, but it will also serve to pressure the International Olympic Committee to take a stronger stand. Along with the help of All Out, Athlete Ally has launched a petition telling world leaders and the IOC to condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws ahead of the Olympics. Over 335,000 people have already signed on to the campaign. We want the IOC to make a strong statement condemning President Putin’s crackdown. We’re asking the IOC to publicly acknowledge that even if Russian authorities guarantee that athletes will not be arrested during the games, Russia’s LGBT community will continue to endure unacceptable treatment after the Games are long over.
World leaders are already starting to take notice. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it clear that Russia must reverse course. President Obama spoke out on The Tonight Show saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”
Together we can show the world that the Olympics are truly about solidarity and respect for all people. Remember, the site for the 2020 Summer Olympics will be selected in September, and the three contenders are Tokyo, Istanbul, and Madrid. It’s time to make sure that moving forward, host cities truly reflect the Olympic ideal that makes the Games so compelling in the first place. Together, an army of allies can make sure the next games are held in an LGBT-friendly country where gay marriage is legal: Spain.
Brian Ellner is a political strategist who led the New York campaign for marriage equality, co-Founded the Four 2012 and serves on the Athlete Ally Board of Directors.