Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly hates gay people, but he can’t seem to decide exactly how much. In the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin pushed through a grotesquely homophobic bill that effectively bans being gay in public. Then, anticipating mass protests against the law at Sochi, the president designated “forbidden” and “controlled zones” around the games to forestall any pro-gay demonstrations. But soon after, he explicitly stated that gay athletes and fans are welcome at the Olympics.
Now Putin has added an important qualification to that generous invitation: Gay people are certainly welcome at Sochi—so long as they “leave kids alone.”
The president, of course, has long linked homosexuality with pedophilia; the stated purpose of Russia’s anti-gay law was, after all, to protect children. And during Friday’s Q-and-A, Putin went even further with the comparison, seemingly linking the liberalization of gay laws with the legalization of pedophilia. After discussing the issue of gay rights, Putin veered toward other “nontraditional forms of sexual intercourse,” claiming that:
Parties have raised the issue [of legalizing pedophilia] with certain parliaments. So what, are we supposed to shuffle behind them like obedient dogs toward unknown consequences? We have our own traditions, our own culture, we treat all our partners with respect and ask for our traditions and our culture to be treated with respect as well.
Putin’s vile implication here is essentially a dog whistle, signaling to his supporters that he hasn’t abandoned his homophobic principles while appeasing the West with a lukewarm gesture toward both tolerance and respect for cultural differences. (Putin’s call for respect is rather ironic: Many homophobic vigilantes have taken his anti-gay rhetoric as a blank check to beat, torture, and murder gays.) The old homophobic rallying cry of rampant gay pedophilia fell out of currency for all but a few extremists in America long ago, but it clearly retains some validity in Russia. Even if Putin keeps tensions at a minimum during Sochi, then, his continued legitimization of this odious canard will continue to stoke the flames of anti-gay sentiment in Russia.
The United States is unlikely to respond directly to Putin’s comments—but any response would be unnecessary, anyway. President Barack Obama has already addressed the Sochi crisis with a masterstroke of rainbow diplomacy, naming three openly gay athletes to the U.S. Olympics delegation. The president’s not-so-subtle move drew criticism this week, when Mario Pescante, a senior International Olympics Committee member, slammed the United States for sending “four lesbians [sic] to Russia just to demonstrate [its support for] gay rights. …The games should not be an occasion and a stage to promote rights that sports supports daily.” Pescante didn’t explain exactly how sports support gay rights “daily”—but he certainly wasn’t referring to sports in his own country.