Can't Bear It: Russian Olympians Forced to Change Costume Design Because It's

Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year, but international criticism has been mounting. Russia's history of anti-gay laws, the country's recent ban on gay "propaganda," and its links to violence against LGBT people all make for an

Can't Bear It: Russian Olympians Forced to Change Costume Design Because It's

Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year, but international criticism has been mounting. Russia's history of anti-gay laws, the country's recent ban on gay "propaganda," and its links to violence against LGBT people all make for an uneasy setting. Russia has tried to do damage control by promising that they will not discriminate against LGBT athletes or spectators, but that doesn't stop people from worrying about their safety. This is all happening amidst a backdrop of Western media attention, which focuses on Russia's unfortunate reputation for mistreating minorities.

Sochi's history with LGBT people

Russia has a reputation for openly discriminating against gays, an uncomfortable reality that has extended to the Olympic games. In 2008, a German parliamentarian denounced a planned Olympic hockey game between Canada and Russia. Russia has yet to recognize LGBT rights as equal to heterosexual rights. In a political speech, Putin described homosexuality as "non-traditional sexual relations," and said that Russia did not consider the two groups to be the same. Putin's speech prompted Canadian Parliament to cancel their upcoming game with Russia. In 2011, the Canadian gay advocacy group Rainbow Railroad helped refugee LGBT people escape Russian persecution, the Guardian reported. The Russian police often have involvement in violence against gays.

Russia's recent ban on gay "propaganda"

First, let's talk about the ban. Gay athletes who are coming to Sochi are subject to strict rules, which were revised in response to the international furor over Russia's anti-gay laws. Basically, they are prohibited from displaying any signs of support for gay rights during the Olympics, and Russian athletes are told to wear only red instead of their national team jerseys to show solidarity. Despite the much-heralded Olympic boycott, recent reports indicate that the government has become more brazen in its efforts to oppress minorities and curtail freedom of speech. If Russia doesn't take action to regulate its Olympic policies, the Olympic logo should stand as a warning to the government.

Safety concerns in Sochi and the West

The Association of National Olympic Committees has issued a statement against Russia's new laws. It says: "Anti-gay propaganda is not a legitimate purpose for any international sporting event, whether before or during an event, and our position has been communicated to the Russian Olympic Committee at senior level." The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has also expressed concern. "As an organization that supports equal rights for LGBT people around the world, ILGA finds it shameful that any human rights event is being used to boost the nation’s image in the name of nationalism and sports," said ILGA-Europe Executive Director Ruth Wallace.

International criticism and Russia's response

The New York Times has produced a long-running interactive story about this subject, which has in turn influenced commentary in the press. You can see it here. Over at Slate, Leon Neyfakh (one of the hosts of the "Code Switch" podcast), called the Sochi Olympics "almost uniquely problematic for gay people in a country where there are very few to begin with." He cited the Russian government's history of anti-gay violence and oppression, and the high levels of violence and hate crimes that happen against gay people on a daily basis in Russia. "But," Neyfakh wrote, "it turns out that's nothing compared to what the athletes who live there deal with on a daily basis.