Yes, Gay Activists Failed in Sochi. Here’s Why.

Protest in Madrid
Demonstrators display a rainbow flag in Madrid, Spain, during a demonstration against Russia’s anti-gay laws in the runup to the Sochi Olympics.

Photo by Curto de la Torre/AFP/Getty Images

From an LGBTQ standpoint, many are describing Sochi as a flop. Whether it’s Masha Gessen lambasting inappropriate and ineffectual actions from U.S. organizations more used to promoting marriage equality than international activism, or Canada’s Denise Sheppard deploring the lack of media coverage of human rights abuses during the Olympics, there are plenty of disappointed gays.

Count me among them.

Despite the strict security and the warnings from both Russian authorities and Olympic officials, I thought there would be some visible protest of Russian human-rights abuses (and IOC complicity) during Sochi.

I wasn’t expecting a moment as powerful as U.S. 200-meter medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The treatment received by Smith and Carlos was enough to discourage any athlete from following their lead. Back then, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage demanded that the U.S. Olympic Committee suspend the athletes and remove them from the Olympic Village. Among the athletes affected by that event was U.S. decathlete Tom Waddell, who would later found the Gay Games; he was competing in the Mexico Olympics while an Army surgeon, and his strong support for Smith and Carlos earned him the threat of a court martial.

Nor did their raised fists earn Smith and Carlos public acclaim. However much we may admire their brave gesture today, at the time, they were publicly reviled. No Wheaties boxes for them.

In Mexico City at least there was a pool of African-American athletes from whom a political gesture could be imagined; almost no out LGBTQ athletes competed in Sochi, and even those most engaged in the issue of the Russian anti-gay laws made it clear that during the Games they would focus on competing. The IOC had sent out repeated (and dangerously vague) reminders of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans “political propaganda.” At the last minute, IOC President Thomas Bach did clarify that athletes could speak freely in response to journalists’ questions, but this was too little, too late.

In any case, journalists weren’t keen to take Bach up on his offer. NBC was particularly lame, managing to cut Bach’s references to the principle of non-discrimination in sport from its tape-delayed coverage of the opening ceremony. Nor did NBC (or other media, for that matter) pay much attention to protests taking place during the Olympics, not even the activists arrested in St Petersburg on the day of opening ceremony for the “crime” of displaying Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter.

I think I blame the Internet.

The Internet has made it easy to organize. It’s made it easy to get a message out. But it’s perhaps too easy to organize. And it’s hard to draw attention to a particular message in the cacophony of the worldwide web.

In the run-up to Sochi, I participated in dozens of online conference calls and hundreds of email threads. I was active in two major LGBTQ coalitions working on Sochi. These groups contain organizations young and old, big and small, some barely more than a website, others like the Federation of Gay Games a long-established nonprofit. Some have huge financial resources (alas, the FGG isn’t among them). Some have powerful contacts in the media (alas, the FGG isn’t among that number, either). Each, including my organization, is struggling for attention and funding among an ever-growing number of organizations legitimately and sincerely promoting their cause.

As Masha Gessen points out, we’ve not done a great job of working together effectively. Our focuses are diverse and divergent: the fight for marriage equality in the United States is not the same as defending Ugandan gays from death patrols. At the moment, LGBTQ activists are snapping our necks looking to Sochi, to Uganda, to Kansas, to Arizona, and getting a bad case of whiplash.

The choice by the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee to hold the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi had the benefit of drawing attention to the situation of LGBTQ people in Russia. The side effect of the Olympics’ attractive force is that it’s hard for any organization to resist being drawn in. For some, with a track record of engagement on issues of human rights and major sporting events, the fit was easy. Human Rights Watch has a long history of reporting on human-rights abuses associated with the Olympics. The FGG has been calling for changes to the Olympic Charter since 2010. For others, this was their first foray abroad, or their first time dealing with sports organizations.

In the United States of 1968 there was a divergence of views on the best way to respond to a racist society, but the options were clear, and the representatives of those options were well known. Today, people are as likely to take their lead (even if their action is as small as a retweet or a Like) from Dan Savage or George Takei or Stephen Fry as from the leaders of established institutions. Fry has more than 6 million Twitter followers; the International Lesbian and Gay Association has less than a thousand times that number.

So calls for boycotts and flag waving and rainbow team uniforms flourished, while calls for more considered actions like the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative failed to be heard in the Internet cacophony. So no raised fists, and not even any hands held on the podiums of Sochi.

But while we didn’t see much hand holding in Sochi, the campaign’s photoblog has become a venue for people around the world to show solidarity, with countless photos yet to be uploaded. Many of those photos were taken at Remote Pride House events. Although the efforts of Pride House International to have the IOC or national Olympic committees host some kind of Pride House in Sochi were a flop, thousands of people worldwide responded to the call to host Remote Pride House events. More than 80 of these took place in 40 cities from Wellington to Waterloo and from Manila to Munich. Some were one-offs, like the “human Olympic ring” protest in Paris, while others—like those in Manchester, Montreal, and Toronto—were full-fledged Pride Houses with a full range of programming throughout the Olympics, including films, sports events, panel discussions, plays, and viewing parties.

If the Internet has made it “too easy” to organize, it has been essential for actions such as supporting the Russian Open Games or working to bring Russians to Cleveland and Akron for Gay Games 9. The Federation of Gay Games launched a petition to the president of the International Paralympic Committee to try to save the Russian Open Games, an LGBTQ sporting event. His response was pathetic, but it was part of keeping this event in the limelight, and only possible thanks to online organizations like change.org. We were able to share on Twitter and Facebook the news that venue after venue, and hotel after hotel, were canceling reservations. But we were also able to share live tweets of the opening ceremony as it took place Wednesday night behind a curtain in a bar secured at the last minute to replace a canceled venue, held in near silence so as to avoid attracting attention from other patrons and the police.

The Internet has also made possible the crowdfunding efforts to bring Russian athletes to Gay Games 9 this summer in Cleveland and Akron for a vacation from fear, and where they can take part in an opening ceremony where they can applaud, and be applauded, until their ears ring.

Activists have fantastic tools to work together. All we need to do is learn to play nice.