Tokyo Olympics sparks anti-LGBT slurs on Russian TV

By Vitaly Shevchenko
BBC Monitoring

The participation of openly gay, lesbian and transgender athletes in the Tokyo Olympics has led to an upsurge in anti-LGBT commentary on Russian state TV.

Extremely offensive language, some of which appears in this article, was used by the hosts and guests on talk shows aired by the country’s two most popular television channels.

Even though the Kremlin has tended to not publicly support anti-LGBT sentiment, it fits in with the state ideology of defending Russia’s “traditional values” against the West.

The state-run channels dedicated several of their talk shows to speak disparagingly about LGBT athletes at the Games, using words like “abomination” and “perversion”.

In response, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesman told the BBC they were contacting the official Russian broadcaster, one of the two channels in question, to express their concern.

“Discrimination has absolutely no place at the Olympic Games,” they said in a statement.

What was said on air?

British gold medal-winning diver Tom Daley, who is gay, and a transgender woman weightlifter from New Zealand, Laurel Hubbard, were particularly targeted on Rossiya 1.

The 26 July edition of the 60 Minutes programme was especially rife with slurs.

One of the panellists, Alexei Zhuravlyov, who is a member of the Russian parliament, said he was “disgusted” by gay and transgender people.

“We stand opposed to all this smut and perversion, strongly opposed,” he told the show, pointing at the studio screen which showed Hubbard.

“We stand against this abomination,” he shouted. At one point, Zhuravlyov used an offensive Russian word to describe gay men.

There has been controversy about the IOC’s decision to allow transgender athletes to compete as the gender they identify as, if they fulfil certain criteria, and whether that is fair to female competitors.

Some Russian commentators raised this issue of fairness but combined it with abuse.

“I do not think transgender people have any prospects in Russia, because they love men, while Russian men love women,” said Spiridon Kilinkarov, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament.

What did the presenters say?

At no point was the abuse challenged by the show’s presenter, Olga Skabeyeva. On the contrary, she suggested that the EU had penalised Hungary and Poland by withdrawing funding because “the majority is against homosexuality” in those two countries.

Russia is officially banned from Tokyo 2020 after being found guilty of state-sponsored doping. But more than 330 Russian athletes are competing as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), without the Russian flag or anthem.

The ban was a blow to national pride, but Russia remains defiant, and the Russian hashtag #wewillROCyou has been widely shared and even quoted by senior Kremlin officials.

What was said on the other state TV channel?

Over on state TV’s Channel One – Russia’s second most-watched channel and the official partner broadcaster of the IOC – there was more anti-LGBT discussion.

Anatoly Kuzichev, host of Time Will Tell, appeared on the set on 26 July wearing a wig and mocking Laurel Hubbard.

He went on to call transgender people “psychopaths” and suggested that they should be treated by psychiatrists.

Another Russian MP, Pyotr Tolstoy from the Kremlin’s United Russia party, took issue with the new Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”.

Speaking on the 20 July edition of Time Will Tell, he argued that it was part of Western efforts to “implant their agenda of equal rights, additional rights for LGBT, transgender people and other perverts into the Olympic movement”.

The BBC has approached both TV channels for comment.

How has the IOC responded?

In a statement to the BBC, it said: “We have been in contact with our contractual broadcasting partner in Russia in order to get clarity on the situation and to underline the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and we are following up accordingly.”

It also pointed to its own efforts in celebrating the diversity of its athletes, in particular its support for the Tokyo games’ LGBT hospitality centre Pride House.

“We welcome that Tokyo 2020 has embedded diversity and inclusion in the Olympic Games model.”

How are LGBT people treated in Russia?

Russian officials and state-controlled media have presented efforts to defend LGBT rights as a Western attempt to subvert the very fabric of Russian society and statehood.

“Spiritual and moral values which some countries have started to forget have made us stronger, and we will always defend them,” President Vladimir Putin said in this year’s state-of-the-nation address.

Marches in support of gay rights are routinely broken up by police and their participants harassed by authorities and anti-gay vigilantes.

Russia has particularly been criticised for its “gay propaganda” law, which bans the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors”.

Human Rights Watch described it as “a classic example of political homophobia” which “targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain”.

Two years ago, President Putin defended his government’s attitude to members of the LGBT community as “very level-headed, absolutely calm”. In the same remarks, however, he dismissively called transgender people “transformers”.

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