Russian Open Games: the Spirit of a Hero

By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly

Throughout my life, I’ve always loved and admired people who stand up to adversity against all odds.  The underdog, if you will, or perhaps a better description is simply “hero.”  The individuals who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet continue to fight with unsurpassed passion and determination as if to say, “I’m still here and you’ll never, ever keep me down.”  That hero’s resistance to not be silenced and to continue to fight for equality is once again happening in Russia–big time.

Most people are familiar with the current social conflict in Russia–it exploded back in June, 2013, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors.” The law defines “nontraditional” as “relations not conducive to procreation.” It goes on to define “propaganda” as the act of distributing information among minors that “1) is aimed at creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations and 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.”

Translation: It’s open season on gays.

Since the Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, in a few months, there’s been quite the international controversy–with talk of boycotting the Olympics completely and other more subversive methods of resistance, like same-sex athletes kissing on podiums or painting their fingernails with rainbow colors.

LGBT tourists, people suspected of being gay and even straight-allies supporting LGBTs at the Olympics–no one is exempt from the laws. Anyone can be arrested. And since this law that stigmatizes the gay community passed, attacks on LGBT groups and individuals in Russia have soared from public harassment and humiliation to beatings, fines and imprisonment.

Given this homophobic climate, you can imagine how intimidating it would be to be openly gay in Russia–and definitely an openly gay athlete. Viktor Romanov and Konstantin Yablotskiy are both lifelong athletes, they’re both gay and they’re fighting back. They are co-founders of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, an organization founded in 2010 that now has more than 800 officially registered members and chapters in 22 cities across Russia. The organization will be holding the first ever Russian Open Games in Moscow after the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The goal of the Open Games is to “promote a healthy lifestyle, physical activity and sports among the LGBT community and its supporters. They hope to bring together clubs and groups developing different kinds of sports among LGBT people.” (All that can be found on their website.) The event is for amateur athletes and consists of 8 competitions: basketball, badminton, table tennis, swimming, cross-country skiing, soccer, tennis and volleyball.

“By developing LGBT sport we can improve the standing of the LGBT community in our country. Our society has a very one-sided image of gays. People don’t understand that anyone could be gay. Your boss could be gay; any good, normal person could be gay,” Mr. Romanov told The New York Times.

This is the kind of hero and underdog spirit that makes history. These two men and the people supporting the Open Games are essentially holding their own “gay games” right after the Russian Olympics, despite all of the harassment and violence they have surely faced and will continue to endure. The phrase “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” keeps ringing through my brain. Sometimes those of us living in places where, for the most part, we’re able to live openly without violent repercussions–we forget the numerous places like Russia where it’s extremely dangerous. Hell, it’s dangerous just being a straight ally in Russia.

In addition to organizing the Open Games they’re also encouraging people take part in the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative, a Pride House International campaign that’s calling on everyone present in Sochi for the Olympics–athletes, media, coaches, spectators, fans–to hold hands with a person of the same sex.

“Long after the 2014 Olympics, we in Russia will continue to live under this horrible law. For a few weeks we have the opportunity to bring the attention of the world to the situation in Russia. The Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative enables everyone to get involved with a simple yet iconic gesture,” said Yablotskiy via the Pride House International webpage.

Yes, Romanov and Yablotskiy and the countless others who are fighting Putin and the Russian government are underdogs in the truest sense of the word. In the face of adversity they continue to resist. Who knows how many haters will try and upset the Open Games, but I for one applaud anyone who has the courage to fight back, especially in such a hostile environment. Whether it’s rainbow polished nails, same-sex kissing on the podium or boldly holding the first Russian Open Games–they are heroes.

ShaleyShaley Howard is a sports writer for PQ Monthly as well as an athlete, sports enthusiast, and organizer of the annual Portland Women’s 3×3 Basketball Tournament. She is also is the owner and operator of Scratch N’ Sniff Pet Care, which she considers the best job in the world.