On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, when asked about attitudes toward gays in light of the upcoming Olympics, said: "One can feel calm and at ease. Just leave kids alone, please."
Putin’s ridiculous response was to a group of volunteers in the Olympic mountain venue at Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi.
He then went on to clarify Russia’s anti-gay laws. "We have no ban on the non-traditional forms of sexual intercourse among people. We have the ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia. I want to stress this: propaganda among minors. These are two absolutely different things: a ban on certain relations or the propaganda of such relations."
Last year, Russia prohibited "propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices" among minors — a law that has been utilized to ban gay rights parades and end discussion of gay issues on TV and in newspapers. The amendment to the child protection law charges fines for propagating information about homosexuality to people under 18. These range from 4,000 roubles ($121) for an individual to one million roubles for organizations.
Though Putin defended the law as a basic measure to protect of children, rights activists argue that it denies sexual minorities of basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly and has fueled homophobia.
"He’s trying to say this law is only directed at protecting minors and it doesn’t have affect on LGBT people’s lives, but that’s just not the case," said Nikolai Alexeyev, the founder of the Gay Russia rights group and one of a handful of people to be brought to court under the new law.
LGBT rights have become a big deal at the Olympics this year precisely because it seems that Russia doesn’t believe in basic rights for everyone. The U.S. has made it clear that it does, and that it’s strongly opposed to Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation and propaganda. So the U.S. appointed an Olympics delegation featuring two prominent gay athletes: tennis legend Billie Jean King and Olympic medalist Caitlin Cahow. Short of actually boycotting the Olympics – which some argue we should – the U.S. is being as clear as it can in taking a stand against Russia’s archaic laws. European leaders have also decided to stay away from the Games.
Still, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told R-Sport, "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."
Putin has always been something of a provocateur, and his public statement insinuating that gays shouldn’t be around children should be condemned by gay rights activists and Obama himself. It’s a crucial moment to take a stand — an international stage watched by millions of people worldwide is exactly the time and place to send a message. If the U.S. wants to come out strongly in support for LGBT rights and against Putin, then the Olympics is a prime opportunity.