UPDATE: Another protest is added to the array of events scheduled to protest Russian homophobia during the opening of the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
With the XXVIII Olympic Games set to open in the Russian city of Sochi on Friday, LGBT activists in West Hollywood are planning several events to call attention to that country’s reputation for oppression of gay people.
Perhaps the most visible of these is a rally and march planned for Thursday on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Organizer Nir Zilberman stressed that the rally isn’t to protest the Olympics but rather to show opposition to Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and to express support for LGBT Olympic athletes, who he says he can’t blame for following their dreams to compete.
“I’m here to support them as … hero(s),” said Zilberman, owner of LA Jock, a West Hollywood store that markets clothing for gay men. (Zilberman, wary of seeming self-promotional, initially asked that neither his name nor the store’s be mentioned in this story).
The Thursday rally will begin at 8 p.m. at LA Jock, located at 7992 Santa Monica Blvd. at Laurel. The slate of speakers will include Zilberman himself, former City Councilmember Steve Martin; Jeffrey Sanker, the event promoter known for his annual White Party, and a representative from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Singer Kris Searle will also perform at the rally, which will be followed by a march to the intersection of Santa Monica and Robertson boulevards. West Hollywood City Council members declined to appear at the event.
Another Friday protest is planned at L.A. Live, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., in Los Angeles. In a Facebook post, organizers say they will demonstrate at 1 p.m. outside the entertainment center, which is hosting a national “Road to Sochi Tour” of Olympic athletes and sponsors of the game. “This will be a peaceful, but LOUD demonstration,” the post says.
A more genial Friday event is being cobbled together at the last minute by Pride House International, a coalition of LGBT sport and human rights groups, whose website says it has three dozen events in some stage of planning around the world.
The event in West Hollywood will seek to promote gay bars and stores in Boystown while raising money for the Russia Freedom Fund. So far Eleven Nightclub, Fiesta Cantina, Here Lounge, Micky’s, Revolver, SUR Restaurant and Lounge and Tortilla Republic have agreed to donate $1 for every drink sold from 9 p.m. to midnight to the Russia Freedom Fund. Participating retailers will donate a percentage of their sales during that period to the Fund. Here Lounge will host an Olympics viewing party from 7 to 9 p.m.
The Russia Freedom Fund is a non-profit organized by the Arcus Foundation whose mission is to support efforts to combat discrimination and violence in Russia based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Pridehouse is collaborating with “Uprising of Love,” a coalition of actors, producers, LGBT activists and celebrities that is also raising money to support the LGBT community in Russia.
The City of West Hollywood and Outfest are hosting tonight an event titled “The Whole World is Watching: LGBT Human Rights in Russia on the Eve of Sochi ’14.” The evening will include documentary footage and short films that protest Russia’s infamous “Gay Propaganda” law. The discussion will focus on the state of LGBT human rights and dissent in Russia.
Panelists will include Ana Kasparian, a co-host and producer for “The Young Turks,” an online news show; Milena Chernyavskaya, an émigré who fled Russia after laws forced her to shut down the lesbian magazine she founded; Chadwick Moore, whose article “Love in Putin’s Russia” recently ran in the Advocate, and a representative from U.S.-based protest collective #GayPropaganda (who recently produced 3 PSA’s highlighting anti-gay violence in Russia). Also attending, if his schedule permits, will be Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winning screenwriter who recently visited St. Petersburg to screen “Milk,” a film biography of pioneer gay activist Harvey Milk, at the country’s only LGBT film festival.
On Monday, as part of its Human Rights Speakers Series, West Hollywood will sponsor a forum titled “the Emerging Struggle for Human Rights in Russia.” A panel, moderated by City Councilmember John Heilman, will include as participants Jane Buchanan, associate director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; Joseph Huff-Hannon, ,co-editor, “Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories” and John Tedstrom, CEO of John Tedstrom Associates and former director for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.
The panel discussion will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at City Council Chambers, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., south of Santa Monica. It will be followed by a “Call to Action” dessert reception catered by La Conversation. Free validated parking will be available at the West Hollywood Park five-story public parking garage. Advance reservations are requested by RSVPing to firstname.lastname@example.org. The audience can participate in the discussion by tweeting with the hashtag #WeHoHRSS
Zilberman, who was born in Israel and is of Russian descent, said that he was spurred to create the street rally after Russia adopted anti-LGBT laws last year. They included bans on gay adoptions, “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” gay pride events and providing children with information about homosexuality. As a result, many LGBT people have protested the decision to hold the Olympics in Sochi. The U.S. delegation to the Olympic games will include two “out” athletes (Caitlin Cahow and Billie Jean King). Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to be pursuing the anti-LGBT campaign to strengthen his ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and other conservative elements in an overwhelmingly conservative country.
With the uproar over the Russian laws, Zilberman said he started watching web videos depicting what life is like for LGBT people in Russia and other countries. At one point, he said, he spent 10 to 12 hours each day watching deeply upsetting, sometimes disturbing videos.
“I became obsessed,” he said.
Zilberman suggested that people concerned about the situation in Russia do online research to connect with LGBT people who need support. One Iranian man, for example, sent Zilberman a message saying that no one else knows that he’s gay. He hopes to find a way to flee the country.
“To me, this is not the way people should live,” Zilberman said.
Zilberman said he’s expecting some 400 to 600 people will take part in the rally and march, but if no one else attends, he’ll take to the streets and march by himself. He’s uncomfortable with speaking in public, but he feels that it needs to be done.
West Hollywood’s last public display of support for LGBT rights in Russia involved the pouring of fake Stoli vodka into the gutter on Santa Monica Boulevard by City Councilmember John Duran and local bar owners. That event drew lots of TV cameras but also prompted criticism from LGBT activists who noted that SPI Group, Stoli’s manufacturer, is not based in Russia and does not manufacture vodka there. Others noted that Stoli is a major promoter of gay events. The brand recently made a donation of $300,000 to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to help its efforts to develop LGBT leaders in other countries.
Despite that criticism, Duran boasted at the West Hollywood City Council meeting on Monday about the number of times the pouring of fake Stoli had been seen on television and the internet.