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U of O prof among several decrying new laws of Olympic host

Photo by Kyle Darbyson

Local organization Jer’s Vision hosted a panel discussion Feb. 7 at the Arts Court Theatre with the intent of opening up a dialogue about Russia’s gay propaganda laws with members of the local LGBTQ+ community. The event, titled “Speaking out on Sochi,” featured speakers to discuss the new anti-LGBTQ+ law within the context of the ongoing Winter Olympics.

Each panelist brought a different dimension to the discussion based on his or her experience and expertise. Jennifer Birch-Jones, an athletic consultant and LGBTQ+ activist in Canadian sport, spoke on the relationship between the law and athleticism; Member of Parliament Paul Dewar, a National Democratic Party foreign affairs critic, commented on the political aspects of the law; and University of Ottawa law professor Joanne St. Lewis spoke about its legality.

The three panelists agreed we should support our athletes at the Olympics, but also emphasized that the games should be used as a platform to discuss the anti-LGBTQ+ law, the violation of human rights in Russia, and homophobia worldwide.

The Olympics in Sochi have been under heavy scrutiny from social activist groups since June 30 when the Russian government passed a law that criminalized the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors.

Birch-Jones said she fears the law’s ambiguous definition of “gay propaganda” will not only threaten the safety of LGBTQ+ athletes in Russia, but will compromise their athletic performance. Throughout the panel, Birch-Jones said her concern is based on her conversations with gay Olympians, including Canadian bronze medallist Erin McLeod.

“For Erin, she can’t separate being gay from who she is,” Birch-Jones said. “Not being able to truly be herself can’t help but only hurt her performance. For her, and for any athlete, to be the best you can be you have to compete without fear, and there is this fear in the back of their minds.”

The panel speakers expanded beyond the parameters of Sochi and discussed how LGBTQ+ rights are being mismanaged worldwide. Dewar said the human rights issue is plagued by inconsistencies here at home. During the panel, he revealed the Canadian government did not impose Visa bans on Russian officials responsible for the gay propaganda law, even though they have taken similar actions against politicians from the Ukraine and Iran in the past.

“I think that you need to be clear and decisive about your positions when it comes to human rights. And you can’t be selective,” Dewar said. “Human rights are universal. They should be. You need to take action.”

St. Lewis disagreed with the idea of a boycott and instead championed the sentiment of “taking action,” saying she believes visible social activism is key to getting the anti-LGBTQ+ law overturned. She said that although education and awareness are facilitated by social media, people looking to make a difference need to sustain their engagement after the Sochi games come to an end.

“Do not begin if you cannot follow through,” she said. “There is nothing more dangerous than the kind of self-indulgent activism when you then abandon and leave people to their own devices.”

Although many signatures were added to the petition urging the government to increase diplomatic pressure on Russia, Dewar agreed with St. Lewis that activism should continue after the Olympics.

“When the Olympics finish, that’s maybe when our work begins,” he said. “Because I will guarantee you, when the world is watching, they’ll be holding back. But once Sochi is over, that’s when things get tense.”

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa voted Dec. 1 against airing the Olympics on campus as a demonstration of solidarity with LGBTQ+ students. However, Community Life Service is streaming the games on campus, and community assistants in residence have aired the opening ceremonies.