It says something about the skittish levels of repression and fear in Russia that nail polish could provoke an international crisis. But that’s what happened at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow last August, when Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and her teammate, sprinter Moa Hjelmer, were pressured by their nation’s officials to remove the rainbow decorations that adorned their fingernails or risk being sent home. Their nails were meant to be a subtle protest against recent legislation in Russia aimed at criminalizing and marginalizing the LGBT community.
“I couldn’t imagine how big and how much it would mean to people. So I’m so glad that I did it,” said Green Tregaro. “Of course I’ve got some ugly messages too, and that makes it even more worth it.”
The Russian Duma passed a spate of anti-gay laws last year, one of which bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” These laws are so all-encompassing and so vague that they could threaten prison time for anyone who acknowledges the mere existence of LGBT people in any public forum such as the Internet, the classroom or even the Duma itself. These laws were of course signed by President Vladimir Putin, who also, with great fanfare, signed ordinances banning the adoption of Russian children by LGBT couples, as well as by any single person or unmarried couple who reside in a country where marriage equality is on the books. And he still wasn’t finished: Putin approved legislation that doles out two-week jail sentences for any visitor to the country suspected of being gay or sharing this information with others. Recently, the Russian newspaper Gazeta reported that four Dutch tourists were arrested because they were “suspected of promoting homosexual propaganda among children.” The legislation has also led to a spike in violence and harassment aimed at the country’s LGBT community.
As The Guardian reported, “Activists say the legislation has emboldened rightwing groups who use social media to ‘ambush’ gay people, luring them to meetings and then humiliating them on camera—sometimes pouring urine on them. These groups often act against gay teenagers, several of whom told the Guardian that rising homophobia and vigilante activity force them to lead lives of secrecy.”
Much of this legislation was passed in the shadows, with little discussion or condemnation on an international scale and very few mentions in the media outside Russia. That changed dramatically when people started to discuss it in the context of the coming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Debates exploded around the world about whether LGBT athletes and allies would be safe in Russia, about whether countries should boycott in protest or even whether activists should push to ban Russia from its own Winter Games. Among athletes and Olympic federations, the question is even starker: Should athletes just “shut up and play,” or should they use their athletic platforms to protest at the Olympics? This last option is the one that we are most likely to see. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has already taken a boycott off the table, making the case that “history has proven that the only people…hurt by boycotts are the athletes that have worked their whole lives to participate in these Games.”
That leaves protest as the only option for athletes. It’s an option with considerable risk. Putin initially outlawed all forms of protest in the two months leading up to the Games. That decree, which has been slightly eased, banned all “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets” that aren’t a part of Olympic ceremonies—meaning arrest or deportation for anyone who believes that just being who they are should not be seen as “an act of protest.”