The newly elected president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach has not responded to a request sent from a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations asking for a meeting during his first visit to Sochi, the Russian coalition said on Monday, as Bach arrived in the southern city to meet Vladimir Putin.
"Russia's new so-called anti-propaganda law expressly announces inequality based on sexual orientation and is in direct violation of the Olympic Charter's requirement that 'any form of discrimination...is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement,' the coalition wrote in the letter. "The purpose of our meeting would be to discuss ways the IOC can ensure the respect of the non-discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter and in particular defend the rights of LGBT athletes and visitors, for example by establishing a 'Pride House' as for the last two Olympics."
The letter — sent by email on Oct. 13 and followed by a formal request sent by post Oct. 22. — was signed by Anastasia Smirnova on behalf of the Russian LGBT Network, Side by Side LGBT Film Festival, St. Petersburg's Coming Out, the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, Arkhangelsk's Rakurs, and the OutLoud Project.
When asked whether Bach would follow President Barack Obama's example and meet with LGBT organizations while in Russia, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told BuzzFeed, "We have offered to meet Russian LGBT groups this week should they wish. We are always open for dialogue."
The ambiguity in that answer troubled Human Rights Watch's Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden, who has been working with Russian activists and argued that it was not enough for a junior official from the IOC to meet with LGBT activists. If Bach, who was appointed in September, wanted to send the message that Russia's crackdown on LGBT rights was counter to the Olympic Charter, he would have to commit to meeting with them personally, she said.
"A meeting at any level other than Thomas Bach doesn't communicate the appropriate concern about the [anti-LGBT] law," Worden said.
Bach's visit to Sochi was initially planned for later this week, but he arrived early on Monday to hold a meeting with Putin, who used the occasion to assure him, "We are doing everything, both the organizers and our athletes and fans, so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation."
All protest has been banned during the Olympics in Sochi as has the creation of a Pride House. In March, a judge upheld the Russian interior ministry's decision to ban a Pride House at Sochi, arguing that the house would "undermine public morals and are at odds with national policy on the family, motherhood and children."
The full text of the letter:
October 22, 2013
Mr. Thomas Bach
President, The International Olympic Committee Chateau de Vidy, 1007 Lausanne, Switzerland
Subject: Request for a meeting in Sochi
Dear Mr. Bach,
We understand that you will be making one of your first official visits as the new president of the International Olympic Committee to Sochi in a week. We believe that you are aware of the growingly hostile climate for LGBT persons and blatant violations of human rights on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Russia. In addition to the existing discriminatory and stigmatizing laws, various homophobic legislative initiatives are being discussed by parliamentarians on a regular basis, not only suggesting inferiority of LGBT people, but inciting hate and violence towards them among the general population. On the background of these rapidly developing official policies, we witness a rise in hate speech, including by officials in their statements and interviews, and organized crime against LGBT people and human rights defenders who work for equality.
The founding block in this climate, Russia's new so-called anti-propaganda law expressly announces inequality based on sexual orientation and is in direct violation of the Olympic Charter's requirement that "any form of discrimination ...is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." In view of the IOC's mission and role "to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement," we, a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, are writing to request a meeting with you when you visit Sochi to attend the Sport and Environment Conference, from October 30 to November 1.
The coalition is comprised of 6 established and devoted LGBT organizations: Russian LGBT Network, Side by Side LGBT Film Festival, St Petersburg LGBT organization 'Coming Out,' Russian LGBT Sport Federation, Arkhangelsk LGBT organization 'Rakurs,' and OutLoud project, and was formed specifically with the purpose of ensuring that discrimination and violence against LGBT persons in Russia are not silenced in view of the Olympic games, that our communities are protected, and that the established Olympic principles of respect of human dignity and non-discrimination are upheld.
We recently convened at a conference in St Petersburg to discuss the increasingly homophobic environment in Russia, which is already tainting the image of the upcoming Sochi Games. Participants included international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations, the Human Rights Campaign, and All Out. The hostility faced by the LGBT community in Russia today was sadly illustrated when a large group of anti-gay protesters violently attacked a peaceful march of LGBT activists while the conference was being held.
The purpose of our meeting would be to discuss ways the IOC can ensure the respect of the non- discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter and in particular defend the rights of LGBT athletes and visitors, for example by establishing a "Pride House" as for the last two Olympics (Vancouver 2010 and London 2012); and discuss the need for the IOC to implement lasting reforms to avoid a similar crisis in the future.
We look forward to hearing from you, and thank you for your consideration.
Representing a coalition of organizations:
Russian LGBT Network
St Petersburg LGBT organization 'Coming Out' Side by Side LGBGT Film Festival
Russian LGBT Sport Federation
Arkhangelsk LGBT organization 'Rakurs'
Out Loud project
J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed and 2013 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.
Legal editor Chris Geidner contributed reporting.