With the Sochi Winter Olympics less than a month away, it seems as if people cannot keep themselves from offending each other. The most recent comment to ruffle our bald eagle feathers comes from known heterosexual Mario Pescante. In his spare time, he also chairs the International Olympic Committee’s International Relations Commission. He had some choice words for President Obama’s decision not to attend the upcoming games. The United States will be represented in Sochi by a group of former Olympians, three of whom are openly gay.
Pescante said that Obama’s planned absence from the games is an excessive show of disapproval, and his chosen ambassadors are an “absurd” demonstration of America’s pro-LGBTQ attitudes. While the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom and Lithuania have all announced their plans not to attend the games, Pescante felt that the United States’ attempt to politicize the games was totally unnecessary. Swiss President and known heterosexual Ueli Maurer agreed with Pescante, expressing the importance of respecting Russia’s sovereignty and not “spoiling the games.”
There is a certain irony in Pescante’s rebuke. As the ranking representative of Italy, Pescante’s opinions must be compared against Italy’s own long list of LGBTQ-related accomplishments. Italy legalized homosexual relations in the 1890s. They adopted the European Union’s prescribed antidiscrimination laws. And that’s about it. While other founding members of the EU have legalized same-sex marriage, adoption and sweeping anti-discrimination laws, Italy continues to foster a climate of homophobic fear and humiliation. In a 2012 study of the Province of Rome, 73 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported encountering homophobia, mostly at school. Homophobia in school is only the tip of a much more threatening iceberg comprised of LGBTQ teen homelessness, assault and suicide.
For the European Union, the status of LGBTQ people is an increasingly touchy issue. While northwestern member states like Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands feel that LGBTQ rights need to be protected because “it’s the right thing to do,” many of the EU’s newer additions (e.g. Latvia, Malta and Bulgaria) refuse to classify violence against LGBTQ people as “hate crimes.” Like Italy, religious conservatives in these nations often resist legislation that, in their view, would legitimize deviant and socially destructive behavior. As the European Union continues to expand, the founding members’ LGBTQ-affirming liberalism meets ever-strengthening pushbacks from socially conservative southern and eastern nations. With no middle ground in the debate on LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ people in these socially conservative countries are becoming an increasingly marginalized group by the political majority.
So what is the middle ground in this fight? Are there any LGBTQ rights that both ultra-liberal Sweden and hardline conservative Italy can agree upon? How about every individual’s right not to be assaulted, or every child’s right not to be made homeless because their parents disown them? How about an end to teenage suicide? When we can say, with a good degree of certainty, that LGBTQ teenagers are at a significantly higher risk of assault, homelessness and suicide, why can’t we agree that they need extra help? Is their sexuality enough to condemn them to die?
Currently, one major organization has attempted to bridge the gap between LGBTQ rights and religious conservatism. The Church of England, which has vigorously opposed same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom, recently announced a nationwide effort to eliminate anti-gay bullying in Church-run schools. Officials in the Church had the compassion to understand that, regardless of a child’s sexual or gender orientation, a child deserves the right to go to school without feeling harassed. Further, the Church recognized its role in raising a generation of Britons who understand that LGBTQ people do not deserve to be indiscriminately brutalized.
And that brings us to where we started: the Sochi Olympics. The message that we need to send to Russia, Italy and the rest of Europe is simple: no one deserves to be beaten, raped or killed because of his or her orientation. While we may disagree about same-sex marriage, adoption or even the right to speak about homosexual experiences, ending the violence would transcend that. As we hear about the systematic brutalization of LGBTQ youth in Russia and elsewhere, we need to remember that the victims are children. They are not the protesters demanding same-sex marriage; they are people asking not to be assaulted.
To Pescante, to President Maurer and to Vladimir Putin (all known heterosexuals), I remind you to “think of the children” — not only those lucky enough to be born cisgender heterosexual men, like yourselves, but also the ones who live every day in fear. Because no one deserves that.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]