When Vladimir Putin’s Russian Duma voted in a bill outlawing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” at the beginning of 2013, signed off as law in June, the liberal world was agog at the implications this had for the LGBT community. Plans for Sochi to host the Winter Olympics in February 2014 became a political minefield.
So when gay short track speed skater Blake Skjellerup stepped (well, skated) up to compete, he became the people’s champion in this fight for common humanity. Luckily, he wants to take the torch. “I’m very happy to stand up and to be myself and bring awareness to this issue. It should not be going on.”
But Kiwi-born Skjellerup did not always feel so comfortable with his sexuality. Now 28, he has only been openly gay since he was 24 – coming out after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics, as he felt he would lose sponsorship if he revealed his true self. Now, this “blatant form of oppression” in Russia has given him fire in his belly to make these Games different. “For someone who was bullied and had a difficult time coming to terms with my sexuality because of that, it’s not something that I stand for any more.”
When it comes to fighting the insidiousness of propaganda, crusaders usually have some sort of weapon. Barack Obama has a political platform and the G20 summit to raise concerns. Stephen Fry has a TV camera and a journalist’s visa. Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has a megaphone and a rainbow-uniformed army. But Skjellerup has just Lycra for protection and his skates’ precarious razor’s edge to steady him as he hits the ice to compete in what could be chilly hostility in Sochi.
Taking a stand
“You’re born gay – it’s not something you choose, and it’s not something you just become, it’s who you are,” says Skjellerup. “The more people that come out, and the more barriers that are broken down through that, the sooner we can live our lives free.” He’s out and proud now, thanks to the inspiration of gay Australian Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham, and he’ll take a stand in Russia in the footsteps of US runner Nick Symmonds, who dedicated his silver medal at the World Championships in Moscow earlier this year to his lesbian and gay friends – the first international public figure to speak against the gay law in Russia.
As Sochi approaches, protesters have been calling for competing states and sponsors to boycott the Games. Although it is legal to be gay in Russia, the new law means being ‘pro-gay’ – even just acknowledging being gay as a natural state of being – while in the presence of a minor, threatens the ‘man plus woman equals normal’ values the government is keen to uphold. Essentially likening the spreading of any gay message (which could just be holding hands with someone of the same sex) as akin to pornography and paedophilia, the LGBT community is open to unparalleled abuse on the streets and subject to fines (upwards of 4,000 rubles/£78) if caught ‘spreading the word’.
Skjellerup thinks attendance of the Games in the face of adversity is key. “I do not believe in a boycott. I think it’s more important to have athletes such as myself present at Sochi, being themselves and representing their country and whatever background they come from – whether that be a sexuality, race or culture – via sport.”
As the International Olympic Committee has been resolute about going ahead in Sochi, this Games could be the stage for international LGBT protest, as Mexico was for Black Power in 1968.
In August, the Russian government released assurances that the anti-gay propaganda law would not be held up at the Winter Olympics, but rumblings say that may not be true – the rules state foreign nationals can be detained for up to 15 days if found to be propagating the gay message. President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach has spoken about the decision to accept the Russian government’s terms, saying the IOC’s “remit does not extend to the internal affairs of sovereign nations, no matter how we may feel about them”.
So how can the Olympics maintain the qualities that drew the likes of Skjellerup to compete? He calls them the defining morals of peace, diversity, education and friendship aware that such tenets aren’t compatible with next year’s setting. “Unfortunately for the Olympic Games being in Sochi, the law doesn’t align with those elements.”
The IOC says the Games “will be free of any form of discrimination” and safe for all competitors and spectators. But it’s hard to see how there can be no implications for free-thinking attendees. And with President Putin souping up 4G speed with free Wi-Fi across the city during the event, online chatterers will be open to scrutiny. Tweets or possibly private texts challenging the law could mean arrest.
Although his personal safety and liberty is at risk, Skjellerup is holding strong. “If someone deems me to be ‘too gay’, whatever that may be, then so be it. We’ll see what happens.” This is largely owing to the IOC’s assurances. “I don’t have any concern towards my safety… The IOC has guaranteed that athletes inside the [Olympic] village are able to be themselves and go about their business, free from any kind of discrimination and the constraints of this archaic law that exists in Russia.”
But being free in the Olympic village doesn’t mean being free to protest on the podium. Team Skjellerup has developed a rainbow pride pin with his name on, which could be seen to contravene the Olympic protocol to keep Sochi protest-free – in line with Putin’s broad no-protest zones around the stadium sites. “My protest will be that an openly gay athlete has won under Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay Russia,” says Skjellerup. Campaigner Peter Tatchell offered us a message to the Olympian: “Go Blake. Wishing you gold. Please find a way to make your gayness and support for LGBT rights visible at Sochi. Good luck.”
Tatchell feels there is more risk than Skjellerup cares to admit. “The IOC has already acquiesced with the Russian ban on the hosting of a LGBT Pride House at Sochi and with the blanket ban on demonstrations in Sochi city during the Olympics. It has said athletes who show support for LGBT rights will face disciplinary action, possibly including expulsion and being stripped of any medals they’ve won. The Russian authorities have pledged to get tough with protesters. This threatens athletes and spectators.”
Getting to Sochi
The high stakes are clear – protests in Russia since the law was passed have been bloody and brutal, the government accusing gay rights activists of inciting violence from right-wing vigilantes who beat them in the streets. Russian gay clubs have closed, embattled, while across the world club nights dedicated To Russia With Love sacrifice bottles of Russian vodka in a supposed show of unity.
As Olympic plans come together, campaigners have launched underground talks about how subtle shows of protest can take place to make a difference. Talk of Livestrong-style ‘P6’ bracelets to reflect the meaning of the law, symbols sewn into clothes and pins like Skjellerup’s will help highlight athletes’ support for LGBT rights.
Meanwhile, Skjellerup has been training hard to qualify and launching a successful $15,000 Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign to transport him 5,726 miles from Calgary, where he trains, to represent New Zealand in Sochi.
Now he just needs to qualify. He’ll find out his fate in early November and, until then, his supporters are growing as he tours the world promoting his message. “I want to be in Sochi to do my best on the ice to bring awareness and education to this cause – not just to the Russian people, but the people of the world – that LGBT athletes are no different to heterosexual athletes. We’re just as strong and shouldn’t have to suffer any kind of prejudice.”
(Photography: Nate Luit)