State Department issues travel alert to LGBT Americans attending Sochi Olympics

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Will LGBT spectators at the Olympics truly be safe while in Russia? The US State Department thinks they might not be. On January 10, it issued a travel alert to LGBT Americans planning to attend the games.

Most of the travel alert is general information about healthcare, crime rates, and other common concerns, but one paragraph reads:

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER (LGBT) ISSUES: In June 2013, Russia’s State Duma passed a law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia. Russian citizens found guilty of violating the law could face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,100). Foreign citizens face similar fines, up to 14 days in jail, and deportation. The law makes it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public, but lacks concrete legal definitions for key terms. Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes “LGBT propaganda,” and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as “LGBT propaganda.” LGBT travelers should review the State Department’s LGBT Travel Information page.

The site’s page on the Russian Federation also reads, “Attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals: Discrimination based on sexual orientation is widespread in Russia. Harassment, threats, and acts of violence targeting LGBT individuals have occurred.” 

In October 2013, in the wake of protests and negative attention received from around the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the International Olympics Committee, “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.”

Few were reassured by the claim, however, especially since Putin has claimed his country’s anti-gay laws “protect” young children, and do not encroach on the rights of Russia’s LGBT community.

The US isn’t the only country seeing reason to be concerned; British actor Ian McKellen said in December 2013 that he has been warned by the British government not to go to Russia, given its anti-gay laws. The Foreign Office put out its own warning that potential travelers are advised to consider Russia’s “degree of intolerance” towards homosexuality before travelling; McKellen said that UK authorities told him “they couldn’t protect [him]from those laws.”

Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who first proposed the “homosexual propaganda” ban, has claimed that reports of violence against the LGBT community, are “a foolish story. It’s not true…I think that much violence goes from gay people to straight people. Much more violence.”

The US State Department also said in October 2013, “Rules governing the treatment of information remain poorly defined.” According to documents obtained by The Guardian from a team of Russian investigative journalists, the Black Sea resort of Sochi has been wired to allow Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to monitor all visitor communications, something that could prove especially problematic for LGBT guests.

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