When Norway’s Health Minister arrives in Sochi as his country’s official representative at the Winter Paralympics, he knows who he wants by his side as he cheers on the national team. “It’s natural to take Dag Terje along when attending this type of event,” Bent Høie he told Norwegian media this week, referring to his husband, Dag Terje Solvang.
Bringing one’s spouse to a sporting event should indeed be an unremarkable event, but the Sochi Winter Olympics begin on Friday amid a chorus of condemnation over new laws in Russia seen as discriminating against the gay and lesbian community. So the attendance of a happily married same-sex couple openly speaking about their relationship sends a powerful signal.
“Everyone understands what two men who are married think about gay rights,” Mr Høie told the Stavanger Aftenblad newspaper.
Activists and members of Russia’s gay community will be hoping for more expressions of support over the coming weeks as the spotlight falls on the country for the Winter Games. Protesters took to the streets of 19 cities around the world today to urge sponsors to condemn laws against “gay propaganda” signed by President Vladimir Putin last July.
The legislation criminalises the act of providing information about homosexuality to anyone under 18. Members of the gay community say the broad wording leaves it open to interpretation and in effect bans public support for gay rights. The United Nations committee on children’s rights has urged Russia to repeal the law, warning that the “vague definitions of propaganda leads to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s [gay] community, including abuse and violence.”
AT&T, the telecoms giant and US Olympic Committee sponsor, became the first big American company to respond to calls for support from the All Out activist group, publishing a blog condemning “violence, discrimination and harassment” against the gay and lesbian community.
Activists hope to convince other sponsors, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa and Samsung to issue similar denunciations. “These brands have spent millions to align themselves with the Olympics, but have repeatedly refused to support the Games’ founding principles,” said Andre Banks of the All Out campaign.
While some activists are calling for a boycott of the Games, world leaders and politicians have deployed different tactics to express their dismay at the rolling back of gay rights. David Cameron, the French President François Hollande and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have all turned down their invitations to Sochi, but have not explicitly linked their snub to the controversial laws.
The EU’s Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, made clear on her Twitter account that she would not go “as long as minorities are treated the way they are”. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, sent a clear message when he announced he would skip the games but was sending two openly gay athletes – including the former tennis champion Billie Jean King – as part of the official US delegation.