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SAYiT Speak Out Against Russia’s ‘Anti-Gay’ Laws

By Dom Conricode

A group of young adults working with one of Sheffield’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) charities have condemned provocative new legislation passed in Russia that has been almost unanimously judged as anti-gay, however the group refused to back any boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and supported athletes who didn’t take the opportunity to protest during the games.

The group from local Sheffield charity SAYiT took a somewhat surprisingly sympathetic view towards the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, discouraging any form of boycott in spite of archaic new laws introduced in Russia.

One member of the group feared a boycott could further marginalise LGBT groups, stating: “We should go to Sochi to show a sense of solidarity with sexual minorities in Russia. Boycotting would only side-line LGBT people even more.” The hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian resort of Sochi has intensified the focus on a controversial new law introduced in Russia surrounding the rights of sexual minorities. The law in question was introduced by the Russian state parliament, the Duma, in June 2013, and the bill specifically bans the distribution of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. Many have taken this piece of legislation to be anti-gay; actor and gay rights activist Stephen Fry derided the law passed by Russia, describing the actions of President Vladimir Putin “as making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.”

SAYiT works with young people up to the age of 25, particularly those who are marginalised and vulnerable, providing support and social activities for people who identify as LGBT or who are affected by HIV. Set up in 1999 in memory of the late Sheena Amos, the charity also runs other sexual equality programmes which serve to raise awareness of LGBT issues and challenge prejudices and stigma that unfortunately still exist in contemporary society.

With the state law passed by Russia coming into direct conflict with the work and values advocated by SAYiT, a group of young people from the charity have taken the opportunity to voice their opinions on the matter. In a series of sessions led by students from a local university, the Sochi Olympics were discussed in great depth, with issues spoken about ranging from whether the Games should have been boycotted to the future of LGBT rights in Russia.

Paul, a regular visitor to the charity, described how some people amongst the media and gay rights groups have overlooked one group within debates surrounding Sochi – the athletes themselves: “People forget that these athletes have trained most of their lives for a shot at Olympic glory. We shouldn’t let Putin get in the way of their dreams.

Some members of the group also spoke on the topic of protests by athletes at the Games. Various media personalities and prominent gay rights campaigners made calls before the Games for a protest to be made. Tennis legend Billie Jean King called for a ‘John Carlos moment’, referring to his 1968 civil rights protest at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

However, a conciliatory tone was struck again in favour of the athletes, with Alan, a young service user, Alan, claiming: “It isn’t up to individual athletes to change the culture. It is up to the authorities to make the culture more welcoming for LGBT Russians and LGBT people visiting Russia.”

An interesting theme that became apparent within discussions with the group was the lack of criticism the Games themselves received. The group’s position on the Games brought up discussion on the difficulty of being gay in Russia, and led to the acknowledgement of how important the work is that’s done by charities such as SAYiT.

The fact that athletes didn’t protest at Sochi 2014, in the Olympics or Paralympics, shows the culture of intimidation that exists in Russia, a notion picked up on by the group at the trust.

Another member, Amy, responded: “I’d imagine it is very hard to be gay in Russia at the minute, and that makes me appreciate all the more the work done here.” Rachel, a young woman who has attended the charity for 6 years, commented: “The hype surrounding the Olympics and Russia as a whole reminds me of how crucial the work of charities like this can be, and too how much more can be done globally.”

As to the wider questions on Russia’s anti-gay law, it remains to be seen what is next for the country’s LGBT population, and of course what this does for sexual equality on an international level. Developments in Uganda (the Ugandan government recently introduced harsh jail-terms and extradition for those in same-sex relationships) were inevitably brought up in a group discussion too, leading to a unanimous agreement that the work of SAYiT is vital.

While the discussion at the charity was focussed on issues in Russia and the Winter Olympics, its clear these issues triggered some degree of reflection in the groups about the fantastic efforts of the SAYiT team. Clearly, the ultimate goal is for a charity such as this to be unnecessary, but while the topics discussed remain prominent in society one can only hope the charity continues to receive the support it needs to keep up the good work.

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