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In Sochi gay rights debate, stars stay offstage

Published: Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 8:26 a.m. CDT
Caption
(John Minchillo)
FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2013, file photo taken for the Arcus Foundation, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge mingles with guests at the launch of Uprising of Love, a social movement dedicated to supporting the Russia Freedom Fund, in New York. The Russia Freedom Fund, founded by Melissa Etheridge, Linda Wallem, Dustin Lance Black, Bruce Cohen and Greg Propper, works for long-term, systemic change in the status and treatment of Russia's LGBT community. (John Minchillo / AP Images for Arcus Foundation, File)
Caption
(Evan Agostini)
FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2014 file photo, Madonna participates in Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" Concert at the Barclays Center in New York. Madonna's pro-gay statements during a concert in Russia in 2013 made a big splash. But entertainment insiders say that when it comes to making a statement at the Winter Olympics, the opinions of athletes, more than celebrities, are more likely to make a difference. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

LOS ANGELES – The combination appeared custom-made for a grand display of Hollywood activism: a stirring human rights cause and the international platform that is the Winter Olympics.

But halfway through the competition, film and TV stars have been background players in the outcry against Russia's policies governing gays.

U.S gay rights groups have enlisted celebrities to speak out, largely online, in support of Russian activists. But such efforts haven't yielded the kind of splashy headlines that followed Lady Gaga's and Madonna's pro-gay statements during concerts in Russia last year.

The issue that had gained momentum before the games has been overshadowed by medal counts and weather updates. Aside from an NBC commentator's scholarly murmurings on gay rights during the carefully opaque opening ceremony, there have been only scattered news reports.

Exceptions have bubbled up. During the weekend, the singer Rihanna posted an Instagram photo, linked to her verified, 34-million-follower Twitter account, showing her wearing a hat with the logo P6. The Principle 6 campaign challenges Russia's crackdown on gay rights, including its law banning so-called gay "propaganda." It takes its name from the sixth "fundamental principle" listed in the International Olympic Committee's charter.

Yet this may be a moment when more from Hollywood — so fervent in its support of gay rights at home — isn't the answer, entertainment insiders say. Olympians themselves must become emboldened while the world is watching, they argue, and give Russians critical support.

"If some A-list Hollywood actor wants to come to Sochi right now and come out, I tip my hat. But I think this is about the athletes," says Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 2008 "Milk," about the life and death of gay activist Harvey Milk.

"The light shines bright on these Olympics. ... If ever there was a time to come out, as an athlete, as a coach, as a member of a team, it's right now," Black says. "Even though it's brave, even though it isn't what they're there for, I call on them to speak their truth openly."

Media and branding expert Howard Bragman, a longtime gay advocate, agrees.

"Hollywood gets this is the civil rights issue of our time. They're some of the people who helped make it" that way, says Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. But this is a time, he says, for the sports world to step up.

___

AND, IN FACT, gay Australian Olympian Belle Brockhoff tweeted thanks to Rihanna before competing in snowboardcross on Sunday. "OMG NO WAY!" said a tweet on Brockhoff's verified account. "Whoah. Thank you @rihanna for standing up for #P6 and equality at the Olympics!"

After her race, though, Brockhoff said she would "definitely be voicing my opinion" — only not quite yet. "If I didn't get a medal, no one is going to really care. I'll still say the things I want to say and if people want to listen, they'll listen," she said. "Social media, I'm all over that."

The Sochi Games have yet to yield a moment as dramatic as the one created in the United States last week when Missouri All-American Michael Sam came out. The announcement preceded the NFL draft that could make him the first openly gay player in the league.

Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, who married partner Isabel Stolz last year, did not bring up Russia's anti-gay laws after winning the silver medal last week in ski jumping. She said before winning the medal that protests weren't worth it because "no one cares."

"We think athlete voices are still powerful in this debate," says Andre Banks, executive director of AllOut, which has been protesting Russia's gay oppression for two years. "But at the end of the day, it's up to the athlete to find the moment to make that expression."

AllOut's Principle 6 campaign refers to the sixth of seven "fundamental principles" listed in the International Olympic Committee's charter, the one banning discrimination. The campaign received a high-profile shout-out from Rihanna, with a photo of the singer wearing a P6 logo hat posted on Instagram.

Indeed, gay advocates are not giving up on the value of celebrity support for the Russian cause.

"The use of celebrity has been critical to drive attention to the issue," says Ty Cobb, the Human Rights Campaign's director of global engagement. "It's undeniable that celebrities are cultural change agents, and that straight allies like Matt Damon are coming out to support (gay) Russians is quite instrumental."

Damon and other celebrities are donning T-shirts emblazoned, in Russian, "Love Conquers Hate" and posting selfies online as part of HRC's fundraising for a Russian support fund. The first donation was $100,000, with a second expected soon, Cobb said.

(By comparison, a Los Angeles dinner for the Family Equality Council, which supports U.S. gay and lesbian parents and their children, brought in more than $500,000 from Hollywood figures and others.)

Black and "Milk" producer Bruce Cohen, along with singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, started the "Uprising of Love" campaign to raise funds and awareness. They heard firsthand about gay repression in Russia, which in 2013 adopted legislation barring distribution of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.

Black and Cohen accepted an invitation to screen "Milk" at a St. Petersburg film festival last year, traveling there with director Gus Van Sant. A bomb threat was received that night, Cohen said.

"The thing to do is to go to Russia and support people on the ground who need help there. Bruce and I put our bodies where our mouths were and went," despite fears of being a lawbreaker, Black says. "It was scary going there with a rainbow flag in my luggage."

___

GEORGE TAKEI, MR. SULU of "Star Trek" fame and a vocal defender of gay rights, appreciates such calls to action but is skeptical about their effectiveness. Takei wanted to see the games stripped from Sochi in protest and relocated to their 2010 Vancouver site.

"We are going against the massive might of a dictatorial nation. (President Vladimir) Putin just a few weeks ago made the statement that there would be no discrimination, but gays and lesbians should stay away from children," says Takei, anger in his voice.

He blames what he called the "spineless" International Olympic Committee for providing a global platform for Russia that he compares to the one exploited by Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games.

But producer Cohen acknowledges there are limits to how far — and how effectively — celebrity can travel in this case.

"Americans coming in and telling them what to do really doesn't play in Russia," he says, especially since there are indications the anti-gay law has hardened Russian attitudes on the issue. He sees it as crucial that gay Russians and allies go public.

"One of the things we're hoping is that all the celebrities involved eventually will be able to give cover and courage for Russian citizens to speak out," Cohen says.

Even the biggest stars may not dent the relentless extravaganza that the games have become, said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

"In the end, the Olympics as an institution trumps everything else," Thompson says. Consider the opening ceremony with its flying horse, video imagery and other dazzling effects.

"Your little squeaky voice saying, 'Hey, what about gay rights' is trampled by flying horses," Thompson says.

The battle doesn't end with Sochi, Cohen says. He notes the upcoming Russian Open Games to promote sports and health for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and supporters. They begin Feb. 26 in Moscow, far removed from Sochi and the blanket international coverage enjoyed by the Winter Games.

The Open Games website carries a warning in accordance with Russian law: "The information on this site is intended only for the use of those aged 18 and over."

"In a way, it's even more important to us than the Olympics, an LGBT event being held in Moscow, and we're working to make sure they get the support they need," Cohen says. "That will be a real clear example of what the future will hold in store."

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