With the Winter Olympics set to begin in less than two months, Russian President Vladimir Putin is positioning his country as a global leader of intolerance for homosexuality.

He told parliament, in a major speech on Thursday, that Russia will be a bulwark against “so-called tolerance — genderless and infertile” that equates “good and evil.” He went on to denounce the “destruction of traditional values from the top,” which he said is “inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of the people.”

Putin’s outburst came a couple of days after he abolished the state news agency RIA Novosti, an official sponsor of the Olympic Games, folded it into a new organization and appointed as its head a television host named Dmitry Kiselyov, who is notorious for anti-gay diatribes. Russian coverage of the Games now will be directed in part by a man who has said that it is not enough to fine gays for homosexual “propaganda,” as a law signed by Putin this year mandates: “Their hearts should be buried in the ground or burned.”

IOC officials are pointing to statements by Putin that gay athletes and spectators will not be discriminated against during the Games.

But, Putin’s rhetoric and the anti-gay law he supported have opened the floodgates for gay-bashing in Russia. As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch recently reported on The Washington Post op-ed page, state television channel Rossiya 1, whose parent is an Olympic broadcasting franchise holder, recently used a secretly made recording of a meeting she had with Russian gay activists to support the claim that “Western, European sodomites are trying to infiltrate Russia and organize a protest movement here, among our Russian perverts.”

In meetings with IOC officials, brave Russian LGBT activists have been raising all-too-plausible scenarios about what could happen in Sochi: What if an athlete gives an interview mentioning his partner or gives him a kiss on camera? What if two men hold hands in the Opening Ceremonies?

The IOC hasn’t offered any answers to these questions. Instead, it has underlined its own rule prohibiting “political” demonstrations or statements by athletes at the Games. But to reject Putin’s campaign to dehumanize gay people is to uphold what the Olympics should be about. As Anastasia Smirnova, coordinator of a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, put it: “This is about identity, not politics. Stating your identity is not political.”

— The Washington Post, Dec. 13

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