Vancouver is sending openly-gay city councillor Tim Stevenson on a mission to the Sochi Olympics in February to try to convince the International Olympic Committee to enshrine gay rights in its charter and guarantee safe spaces for LGBTQ athletes.
Coun. Stevenson, who was the deputy mayor during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, said the new Russian law banning “gay propaganda” under punishment of fines and imprisonment inspired council’s unanimous de facto decision, which will be formalized next Monday.
“This isn’t about trying to raise international incidents,” he said on Wednesday.
“There may be others who try to do that, I don’t know, and good luck to them, but I want to go to be sure that we speak to the IOC and get them to understand how important it is to include sexual orientation in the charter, and how important it is to have a safe house at every Olympics from here on in so that we don’t have again a situation like we do in Sochi now.”
Vancouver was the first city ever to host a “Pride House”, a special resource centre and safe space for LGBTQ Olympic and Paralympic athletes, coaches, spectators and other visitors.
While London continued the tradition in 2012 and there are already plans in the works for one in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Russia turned down the LGBTQ community’s requests for a Pride House in Sochi.
“What we’re aiming for is to convince the IOC that hereafter in every Olympic city there be a Pride House,” Stevenson explained. “In other words that when you bid to have the Olympics you must include a Pride House as well.”
He speculated that Russia would likely not have applied to host the Winter Olympics had that rule been in place before they bid.
Stevenson admitted he is apprehensive about his one-week trip, which will begin just a few days before the games begin and, if all goes according to plan, end a few days after.
A translation posted on gaylawnet.com says Russia’s laws prohibit any “imposition of information about non-traditional sexual relationships, causing interest in such relationships” among minors, which some critics fear equates to an overall ban on public gay rights events in Russia.
Foreigners who break the laws can be punished with a fine equivalent to CAD$160 or a 15-day jail sentence, followed by deportation.
The IOC told the BBC in August it has received “assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation” would “not affect those attending or taking part in the Games”.
But Stevenson said he won’t be surprised if he is closely monitored, followed or even spied on by the Russian government.
“I’m just going to go, speak to the IOC, go to my hotel, eat, drink, and maybe see some of the events, and then get on a plane hopefully and go home,” he said, “so if they want to follow me, it’s kind of a waste of time, but go ahead.”
He will be accompanied on his journey by Olympic Pride House co-founder Dean Nelson and former VANOC spokesperson Maureen Douglas.
Given the high costs of flights and hotels in Sochi at this point, their trip is expected to cost $100,000, which they are raising through private donations.
Stevenson, who is married to the first openly gay leader of the United Church, Rev. Gary Paterson, and is an ordained minister himself, said his partner will not be joining him in Sochi because he has an aboriginal conference to attend.
When asked why not boycott the Russian Olympics, he argued going there will be more effective because a boycott would likely be ignored, and he also wants to be there to support Canada’s LGBTQ athletes.
“This way, at least they know that Vancouver is standing up and Vancouver is going, with a representative who will be speaking to the IOC,” he said, “If we just do nothing, well, nothing will happen.”