Gay Athletes Could Be Prosecuted at 2014 Winter Olympics, Russian Lawmaker Suggests

PHOTO: Vitaly Milonov
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In Russia it is now illegal to even speak about homosexuality around minors, much less openly display gay pride. Technically the ban is against "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" around minors, but the implication for openly gay individuals is clear. Public displays of affection by gays, including holding hands or displaying symbols like a rainbow flag, are now banned. Violators face steep fines and jail time; foreigners face similar penalties plus deportation.

So what will happen to openly gay athletes and fans, as well as any vocal supporters or protestors, when Russia hosts the Winter Olympics next year in Sochi?

This week, comments by a lawmaker from St. Petersburg set off a firestorm online when he said that fans and athletes would not be immune from prosecution during the games.

Vitaly Milonov, who sponsored legislation in St. Petersburg last year that became the basis for a national law signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, was quoted telling the Interfax news agency that the law will remain in place during the Olympics and will be applied to foreigners.

"If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn't have the authority," he reportedly said, stressing that he has not heard anything different from Russian officials.

It is worth noting, however, that Milonov is only a regional lawmaker and is not a member of the federal government or the national legislature. But he has been on the forefront of Russia's war against homosexuality. Last summer he threatened to fine pop star Madonna for violating the law after she spoke out against it from the stage during a concert in St. Petersburg.

The International Olympic Committee appears only cautiously optimistic that the games will be safe for gay athletes and fans, noting that it has sought assurances from Russian authorities.

"This legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi," the IOC said in an emailed statement to ABC News.

"The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games," the statement continued.

The IOC said it continues to urge that the games "take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media."

The U.S. Olympic committee recently sent a letter to American athletes warning them about the law, but stressing, "We do not know how and to what extent they will be enforced during the Olympic and Paralympic Games."

The USOC says they are doing what they can to ensure the safety of all Americans at the Games.

"We are aware of these laws and are engaged in active discussions with the International Olympic Committee and the US State Department about how we can ensure that every American in Sochi, especially our athletes, are safe and secure," the letter continues.

At least one athlete, openly gay New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, has already pledged to wear a rainbow pin during the games.

Anti-gay sentiment runs high in Russia, where homosexuality was illegal during the Soviet Union and only decriminalized in 1993. A law that sent homosexuals to psychiatric wards wasn't annulled until 1999. Petitions for gay pride parades in Moscow have been rejected and unsanctioned rallies are often met by egg-throwing Russian Orthodox believers as well as physical violence. Police are often seen ignoring the attacks, and they often detain the gay rights activists.

In recent months, a new trend of attacks has gained popularity on Russian social media. Groups lure gay men online into meeting them in person, then humiliate and attack them on camera. They post the images and videos online under a hashtag that translates as "Occupy Pedophilia."

The U.S. has not yet issued any specific warning to gay Americans traveling to Russia. The State Department's informational page about Russia, however, notes the law and the dangers faced by those who are openly gay in Russia.

"Discrimination based on sexual orientation is widespread in Russia. Harassment, threats, and acts of violence targeting LGBT individuals have occurred," the page notes. "Public actions (including dissemination of information, statements, displays, or perceived conspicuous behavior) contradicting or appearing to contradict such laws may lead to arrest, prosecution, and the imposition of a fine."

The concern about discrimination against foreigners attending the Olympics comes amid a renewed effort abroad to pressure Russia about the new anti-gay law, including calls for boycott of the games as well as of Russian products.

Influential gay activist Dan Savage last week called on supporters to stop buying Stolichnaya and Russian Standard, two major Russian vodka labels, and to urge bars and restaurants to do the same, coining the hashtag #DumpStoli.

Leading Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev, however, said he did not think the vodka ban will be effective since Stolichnaya consumed overseas is both bottled and based outside Russia.

"To be honest, I don't see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka," he said, according to Gay Star News.

"It will impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever," Alexeyev said.

Stolichnaya is produced by a Russian company for domestic consumption and by Luxembourg-based SPI Group for sale in more than 100 countries abroad. The overseas product is made from Russian ingredients, but bottled in Latvia.

In response, the company's website has highlighted its longstanding support for gay rights, including a banner image on its Facebook page stating "Stolichnaya Premium Vodka stands strong & proud with the global LGBT community against the attitude & actions of the Russian government."

Calls for a full boycott of the games have been few thus far, but some activists, including the group Human Rights Campaign, are urging NBC, which will air the games in the United States, to include stories about the anti-gay law in its coverage.

Mark Lazarus, the head of NBC Sports, has promised that if the law impacts any part of the Winter Games, "we will make sure we are acknowledging it and recognizing it," according to the Guardian.

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