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An Olympic boycott: should LGBT rights trump the winter games?

When the Sochi Olympics begin later this week, it will provide an international platform for what promises to be both a controversial and politically charged conversation, but one having very little to do with the actual sports being played. Athletes may have tirelessly trained. Countries may have vigorously vied to host the games. And all eyes may be on Russia as the opening ceremony unfolds on Thursday, but the Achilles heel to these games isn't whether or not the U.S. will be tough enough to take home the gold this year, but how LGBT rights will fare in a country that has been anything but gay-friendly.

As much as we may like to embrace the notion of good sportsmanship even in the most tumultuous of times, truth is Russia's crackdown on gay people (everything from same-sex partnerships to adoption, though technically it's not "illegal" to be openly gay there) has already set off a firestorm of protests that are not expected to go away anytime soon, especially as the world's gaze is set on Sochi.

In fact, this year's games, for as much as they are about sports and international camaraderie, also speak to what we have come expect from a world-class event. The question of whether Russia should even be hosting the games is a little too late to ask, but depending on how athletes and LGBT rights organizations handle this already sticky situation (will protests be permitted or will gay athletes be shunned – jailed even?), Sochi could easily become the Olympics' answer to Stonewall.

Fact vs. Fiction

First though, there are a few facts that every would-be boycotter should know. Most importantly, that it's not illegal to be openly gay in Russia (homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 – a decade before the U.S. followed suit), but the country has enacted a law as of last year that bans the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. What this means in simple terms is that it's illegal to suggest that same-sex relationships are equal to heterosexual ones in the eyes of the law. Putin also signed a law that allows foreign nationals and tourists to be arrested if they are believed to be openly gay. The penalty? Up to 14 days in jail.

As one might expect in advance of Sochi, gay activists have already been rounded up and arrested, there's been a surge in anti-gay violence (some of which has been recorded and distributed online) and international rights groups have criticized the climate as being nothing short of barbaric. And while the Olympic Committee says otherwise, athletes, their trainers, families and friends who are openly gay (or merely accused of being gay) could also face sanctions if Putin unfurls his metaphoric iron curtain during Sochi.

For many athletes and their allies, this poses a considerable challenge. While the Olympics saw a record number of openly gay and lesbian athletes competing in London in 2012, speaking up (and out) in Sochi is a whole different ball game. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), any athlete who protests Russia's anti-gay laws could be in violation of the Olympic Charter. In plain terms, an outspoken athlete could be stripped of medals and sponsorships if they do or say anything that could be perceived as being a protest. Could this become the ultimate protest? Only if an athlete is willing to put it all on the line. And it could happen.

The U.S. has also flipped Putin the proverbial bird when President Obama named several openly gay delegates to Sochi, including Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano (Boitano recently used the games as a launching pad for his own coming out). And for the first time since the 2000 Summer Olympics, the U.S. President, First Lady and Vice President will not be attending the opening ceremonies. That's what RuPaul might call throwing some serious shade.

Silence Equals Death

The seriousness of Russia's anti-gay climate has also led many pro-gay supporters – including openly gay celebrities like Harvey Fierstein – to boycott the games and its sponsors this year (not unlike the Stoli vodka boycott last year). In an op-ed in The New York Times, Fierstein wrote, "[Mr. Putin's] condemnations are permission to commit violence against gays and lesbians. In May a young man was murdered in the city of Volograd. He was beaten, his body violated with beer bottles, his clothing set on fire, his head crushed with a rock. This is most likely just the beginning."

But is a silent boycott or noisy protest really the ultimate game changer? And is the U.S. in any position to throw, well, homophobic stones? Many American states, after all, have GOP-led legislation that practically mirrors these backwards Russian laws. Utah, for example, prohibits the teaching of homosexuality in schools, and Arizona and Texas have both banned any mention of homosexuality in sex-ed classes. Conservatives in Texas also join those in Alabama to teach children that homosexuality is a criminal offense (though the criminalization of homosexuality has actually been unconstitutional in the U.S. since 2003).

Julie Dorf, a senior advisor at the Council for Global Equality, recently told NBC News (the network on which the games will be broadcast) that while she expects Sochi to usher in a new era for LGBT rights, she hopes that the efforts to spotlight systematic oppression of LGBT people will echo around the world. This means a lot more rainbow-flag waving is needed as the countdown to Sochi begins. But not everyone is on board with boycotts. Heck, Philadelphians can even expect several bars in the Gayborhood (like the Westbury and Woody's) to be broadcasting the games this year. And so far, no out athletes have turned down the chance to compete, but more than 50 have asked Russia to repeal its anti-gay laws.

Still others have found creative ways to send their own LGBT messages of support to mother Russia with a little help from social media. The Human Rights Campaign, one of the biggest LGBT advocacy groups in the U.S., says it will not be sending any staff members to the games this year. Instead, the group is promoting its "Love Conquers Hate" campaign with new t-shirts printed in Russian with proceeds being donated to LGBT groups there. Celebs have already tweeted and Instagrammed their selfies in the shirts. American Apparel has also designed fashions that support gay rights organizations like All Out and Athlete Ally via Principle 6. And AT&T has also come out as the first major U.S. company to make a public statement condemning the anti-LGBT Russian laws, while other corporations are, well, not-so-proudly sponsoring Sochi, including The Dow Chemical Company, General Electric, Panasonic of North America, Atos, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Omega, Samsung Electronics, Coca-Cola and Visa.

In addition to boycotting the games and sponsors, protests are also reportedly being planned around the world just in time for the opening ceremony – including in the U.K. and South America. But it's the athletes who the world will really be watching.

In an op-ed for The Guardian, former NFL player Chris Kluwe encouraged this year's Olympians to stand up and speak out for LGBT rights – no matter the cost.

"As an athlete, a role model for society, people listen to you. As an athlete, when you make a statement, that statement is heard, no matter what that statement is," he wrote. "Speak up for LBGTQ rights, for human rights, for empathy? The world will pay attention, and take notice. Stay silent, keep your head down, count the money and endorsements? The world will pay attention, and take notice. Either way, you're the one who has to live with what you did or didn't do."

Some are even comparing Sochi to the 1936 games in Nazi Germany. If we learned anything from history, it should make us all ask an important question: Will the world step up – or simply play through?

McDonald is a freelance writer and editor in Philadelphia.