Why I'm an LGBT Activist Against a U.S. Boycott of the Russian Olympics

08/11/2013 06:43 pm 18:43:14 | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I've wrestled with the idea of lending my own activist voice and pen to that prong of the LGBT civil rights movement calling for a United States boycott of the Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia. After all, it's not as if the Russian government and the Orthodox Church, their at-best shabby treatment -- and often and increasingly violent treatment -- of its LGBT citizens, and its threats to arrest foreign gays and lesbians during the Games, don't deserve blanket condemnation. They deserve that and more.

And, as a Jew, I feel keenly the history of European church-state collusion in violent bigotry, repression and the pathological desire to marginalize and be rid of whole classes of people.

That said, I would have, I admit, smiled inwardly had my nation in 1936 told Berlin, No: We Will Not Join You. But my smile, my feeling good at having poked Hitler, misses a larger and more important issue. Had something then that unheard of happened, we'd have missed Jesse Owens, for all the world to relish, and on film, and forever, thoroughly upend Nazi racial ideology.

And, as the father of an African-American man, I fondly, genuinely fondly -- and well before I became a father -- recall the raised fists of U.S. track stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Yet I do not for a moment imagine that, say, a one-time U.S. boycott of a major South African sporting event would have ended or even dented apartheid. Sustained, growing Western economic sanctions and increasing official condemnations, and internal pressures born of incredible courage, accomplished that.

So I am not yet convinced that pressing for a U.S. Winter Olympics boycott is the best way activists and others can make a positive difference. And yet I have to think, at least at this point, that the product and travel boycotts, the daily official and unofficial Western condemnations, and wider boycotts, will further our aims, over time, more effectively than a Games boycott would. Already thousands of bars and restaurants across the U.S. and elsewhere, as one example, will no longer serve Russian vodka. This isn't something official Russia sloughs off. This, I think, should be expanded to as many products as is feasible.

And I need to say this, too: a Games Boycott is, in a sense, too easy on those demanding it. We demand, the government acts, and the government then assumes all the attendant fallout, predictable consequences and those unforseen. Community-based organizing, product and travel boycotts, and other actions, are tougher to create, execute, sustain. It takes more effort from everyday people and yet, in the end, it's a strategy more likely to bring greater freedom to the oppressed.

Realize this, too: it's not as if there's a demand for, say, the United States, England, France, Italy, and Germany, as one, to keep its athletes home. That would be something far more profound and could effectively scuttle the Sochi Games before they begin. You and I know, though, that specific, pointed, human-rights cooperation among the allies is tougher than settling joint fiscal policy. There will be no multi-state boycott as much as one might be useful. And, of course, as to the Chinese, far from ever considering such a move, they'd more likely send Party TV crews just to film the gay-bashing, raising it to a sport (as the Russians are doing now).

I am, too, as yet uncomfortable demanding an action that compromises the careers of gay and lesbian athletes from all over the world and particularly from my country.

Finally, please think on this: it's not as if a United States Olympics boycott would stop Russia from hosting the games. The games will go forward at Sochi no matter what the U.S. does. Our absence would be a sharp but very temporary strike at the Russian government and religious officials and institutions colluding to harm LGBT citizens. An official United States absence would, too, no doubt, make a dent in the Russian economy, albeit a small, brief one. I'd opt to continue to expand the economic boycotts and hurt these brutes, hurt them in their pockets, long and lasting.