On February 1, my spouse, Tim Stevenson, will arrive in Sochi.
It began last June, when the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin (with the encouragement and approval, it seems, of the Russian Orthodox Church), passed anti-gay/lesbian legislation, prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” with a very broad definition of what that means, and the threat of prison to back it up. Anti-gay actions are on a sharp increase in Russia – beatings, job losses, gas and gun attacks at gay clubs; there is even a proposed bill to remove children from gay parents.
For many people these homophobic actions raise serious questions about the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. What about LGBT athletes, their friends and families? It’s already difficult enough to be “out” and accepted in the athletic world; now there are larger questions about safety. And what about the contradiction of celebrating the Olympics in a country that is restricting human rights?
There was some talk of boycotting these Olympics, but that would unfairly penalize the athletes, dashing hopes and dreams. Some people suggested that Russian vodka should be boycotted, which might not have been a bad thing for everyone.
But then, Vancouver City Councillor Tim Stevenson came up with another possibility – of his going to the 2014 Winter Olympics as Vancouver’s representative (he would be Deputy Mayor for the month of February) to express the city’s concerns. And City Council unanimously agreed.
So, Tim is going to Sochi to raise questions, to engage in dialogue; simply to be present as the out gay Vancouver Deputy Mayor. On the other hand, he also goes to the games with some specific constructive proposals, not just to raise his voice in protest. He will be asking the International Olympic Committee to change their constitution to specifically include sexual orientation in their charter. Ironically, the Paralympic Games have already done so – perhaps they understand the ugly power of discrimination.
Further, Tim will be asking the IOC to require that any future host city have a “Pride House;” that is, a safe space where LGBT athletes, and their families and supporters, know they will be respected, affirmed, where they can be themselves, without fear. Having a Pride House was an innovation at the Vancouver games, and it was so successful that London followed suit for the 2012 Summer Games; and Rio is intending to do the same at the 2016 Summer Games. When Tim and I were in Korea for the World Council of Churches, Tim went to Seoul and met with government and Korean Olympic Committee officials, to ask if they would consider having a Pride House when they host the 2018 Winter Games. In fact, he will be asking the IOC to institute a policy of not awarding future games to any city that is unwilling to ensure that there is a Pride House for the Olympics.
I am glad that Tim is going to Sochi; it’s the right thing to do. I’m worried, not only about the Russian authorities, but also the threat of terrorism. However, I also know how important it is to keep pressing for human rights, in this case for LGBT people, but for all people, everywhere.
And, I know that Tim goes not only as a Vancouver city councillor, but also as an ordained minister of The United Church of Canada. Our church has been on the forefront of speaking up for LGBT people – in our own denomination, in the wider Christian community, and in Canada. We also have a responsibility to speak to the wider world community, where LGBT people are far too often persecuted, attacked, imprisoned, and murdered.
So Tim’s journey is important. Standing up for human rights is important. He won’t be staying much beyond the opening ceremonies – his work will be done. All being well, he will be back in Vancouver by February 9.
I ask you to hold Tim in your prayers.