The U.S. Olympic Committee is doing its best to tread a very fine line for Sochi:
The athletes are always going into countries with laws different than his or her own country. They’re going to agree with those laws in some ways, they’re going to disagree with those laws in other ways. It’s our strong desire that our athletes comply with the laws of every nation that we visit. This law is no different.
It’s true that law, in the abstract, means roughly the same thing no matter where you are: It is the rules citizens and even visitors are expected to obey. And because Olympic athletes by definition must visit many countries, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect that they should not intentionally break the laws of any country in which they compete.
But is the Russian law truly no different from any other law? Certainly athletes at the Sochi games should not murder people or steal or commit rape. Even laws that have less universal agreement should generally be obeyed, both out of respect and prudence.
The Russian law, though, prohibits propaganda. In itself, this is an indication of illegitimacy, at least by modern standards. The law also prohibits only propaganda of a very specific kind. Here is the closest I have been able to come to an English translation of Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses:
Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.
One of the cornerstones of law is clarity. People must know, within reason, what the law requires or prohibits. This law is a model of vagueness. What are “nontraditional sexual relations?” For that matter, what are “traditional” ones? Can Russian TV run “Sex and the City?” Discuss.
Still, we clearly know what the Duma and Vladimir Putin intended — Shut up about the gay rights. More specifically, shut up in front of the children.
This a a modern spin to remove the stigma against laws about propaganda. Everyone wants children protected.
But children are everywhere. More specifically, any form of journalism in the modern world, from NBC to the internet, may be seen by minors, which means the practical effect of this law is to prohibit any public discussion of gay rights. The invocation of children is superfluous to the goal of banning pro-gay speech.
And that equates exactly with prohibiting any chance of achieving gay rights.
Absent an explicit equal protection guarantee, minorities have little but speech with which to make their case. By definition, minorities must persuade a large number of the majority if they are to have any peaceful political participation at all. Majorities seldom change their minds just because.
The Russian propaganda law is ideally designed to prohibit not just Russian discussion of gay equality, but to make sure it doesn’t happen when Russia is on the world stage. At its best, this law is little more than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. At its worst, it is the first step toward a set of Nuremberg Laws for Russia’s lesbians and gay men.
This makes it not just important to mock the law, it makes it imperative. However, that can be done respectfully, even joyously. Rainbow fingernails? Perfect. Holding hands? Sweet. These and hundreds more small gestures skirt the law without violating it. Maybe the rainbow fingernails are a fashion statement. And holding hands is just holding hands, right? Heck, in post WWII Russia, this was a postage stamp!
The discussion of gay equality in Russia has a long way to go, but reliance on state control of information will not help it be seen as a modern nation. It will be uncomfortable for Russia’s population to experience, within its borders, the increasing support among heterosexuals for gay equality. But there is no wishing — or legislating — away that conversation.