Behind the Sochi Curtain: Russians don't always disagree with Putin's stance on issue of gay rights

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports reporter Martin Rogers and video producer Alan Springer traveled to Russia during July and September 2013 to get an up-close look at Sochi and its surroundings, plus focus on the bigger social issues facing these Winter Olympics. This is Part 5 of our seven-part "Behind the Sochi Curtain" series.

MOSCOW – Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been cast as an "autocrat" (U.S. Sen. John McCain) and a "despot" (German politician Claudia Roth) for creating a law that severely limits gay rights. You would expect Johnny Weir, the gay and outspoken American figure skater turned NBC analyst, to chime in with more of the same.

Not so. It turns out Weir loves Russia almost as much as he loves the limelight.

"For me I constantly feel like I should be doing something," said Weir. "Why can't I help to fix this? It is simply because Russia is a nation that needs a father of the country. Russia needs a [Josef] Stalin, needs a [Nikita] Khrushchev, needs a [Boris] Yeltsin, needs a Putin. Russia needs that strong figure to kind of tell them what, how, where and when. Until they have a president that will accept homosexuals and members of the LGBT community, no one will."

[Related: Behind the Sochi Curtain: Despite Putin, Pussy Riot refuses to shut up]

Weir sat down with Yahoo Sports this past fall wearing a full Russian training kit that had been exchanged with a Russian competitor in Vancouver. During Weir's competitive skating days, his trainer was Russian. Weir said he loves the drama and the moodiness of the country. He said he loves that figure skating and art can be an expression of masculinity in Russia, whereas in America, "it is the gayest sport in the world."

It seems Vladimir Putin never intended Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences to become a go-to issue of the Olympic Games. But that's exactly what happened.

The fallout started in June with outcries about the law banning propaganda relating to "nontraditional sexual attitudes" among minors. The law prompted official tension and political games between Putin and President Barack Obama, raising what turned out to be unfounded rumors of a mass Sochi boycott, and led to a wide-ranging discussion on whether a nation with such a seemingly outdated stance is even fit to host the Games.

Yet the story line of gay rights and the Sochi Olympics has its own plot twists. Putin's own set of beliefs, especially in relation to his closeness with the Russian Orthodox Church, have become one of the most discussed social topics in modern Russia. There is one vocal school of thought that Putin's stance on gays is mostly about pacifying the influential church voting bloc.

Given its mass membership, the church wields significant sway that no Russian politician can afford to ignore. Putin's policies toward gay rights impressed the Orthodox hierarchy so much that in November it gave Putin a special award in recognition of making Russia "a powerful and strong country that has self-respect."

[Related: Ireen Wust becomes first openly gay athlete to medal in Sochi]

In turn, Putin has regularly and strongly supported the church, insisting last year that it should be given more say over Russian family life and education.

But the Russian Orthodox belief system offers little room for flexibility on homosexuality. The organization's leader, Patriarch Kirill I, recently described the legalization of same-sex marriages in other countries as a "very dangerous apocalyptic symptom." Another senior figure claimed that more than half of all Russians considered homosexuality either an illness or a crime, and called for a referendum on criminalizing gay sex.

While trying to defend Russia's gay rights policy in the weeks before the Olympics started, Putin was accused of linking homosexuality to pedophilia by stating that gay visitors could feel safe but should "leave kids alone." Citing the need to boost Russia's birth rate as a valid reason for discouraging gay relationships, Putin said the country needed to "clean up" homosexuality.

Those comments sparked an inevitable response of derision in the West, but church leaders have nothing but praise for Putin. "The president's ideology for developing Russia coincides with the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church," Father Alexey Kulberg, a priest in the city of Yekaterinburg, told the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Whether Putin's motives in introducing and subsequently defending the legislation are personal or political, the concern among Russia's gay activists is the underlying message they claim the law delivers – especially once the world takes its eyes off the Sochi Olympics and Russia.

"Basically, it is a law that enshrines second-class citizenship," Russian-American author Masha Gessen told ABC's "This Week." "It is a huge concerted campaign unleashed by the Kremlin. It's a campaign of hate and violence."

[Related: Behind the Sochi Curtain: Olympics' arrival stirs up grim reminder]

There are fears about attacks on gays, and not just arresting protesters such as those hauled in from St. Petersburg on the opening day of the Olympiad.

"After the new law was passed, repression really kicked in," said Nikita Guryanov, a 17-year-old gay Russian male, in an online documentary released by the Stonewall gay rights group and Vice. "People would give us weird looks, they were wild – they looked at us as if we were animals."

Last May, Vladislav Tornovoi, a 23-year-old from the city of Volgograd, was allegedly bludgeoned to death by his friends after revealing his sexuality to them.

Now there are concerns that even more restrictive reforms could be on the way. Gessen believes that after the Olympics Putin will reintroduce a bill allowing custody of children to be removed from same-sex parents.

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International publicity regarding the gay propaganda law started slowly but took on a life of its own in the months before Sochi.

"Sherlock Holmes" actor Stephen Fry urged a boycott of Sochi, likening the legislation to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews. "House" star Hugh Laurie took a more lighthearted approach, suggesting a boycott of Russian vodka instead.

Former NBA player John Amaechi, who is openly gay, said the Games "shouldn't even be in Russia." Madonna and Lady Gaga opposed the law, as did 27 Nobel Prize laureates and "Lord of the Rings" actor Sir Ian McKellen in an open letter to Putin.

Openly gay athletes such as Canadian speedskater Anastasia Bucsis and Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff joined forces with an anti-homophobia sports organization called Athlete Ally that vowed to "amass an army of out, proud athletes and straight allies at Sochi to shine a light on these laws and work to overturn them."

And then it got presidential.

Back in August, with relations between Russia and the United States already strained over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Obama told late night host Jay Leno that Russia's gay rights policy was "violating the basic morality that … should transcend every country."

[Related: Behind the Sochi Curtain: The hidden country of Abkhazia]

That was merely the warm-up act for Obama's Olympic reply. On Dec. 19 the president announced a traveling delegation for the Opening Ceremony that would not feature himself, or the first lady, or Vice President Joe Biden or any former president. Obama selected openly gay tennis great Billie Jean King (who did not attend the Opening Ceremony due to her mother's failing health and subsequent death on Friday) and two-time hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, also gay. Another delegation member, 1988 Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano, came out as gay two days later.

With Obama's backing, plus the decision of several other world leaders to not attend the Sochi Olympics, Russia's gay rights movement suddenly had a heavyweight punch of international support.

Yet one of the odd contradictions of this whole saga is that, in some quarters at least, that support was not entirely welcome inside the borders of Russia.

Weir and Victor Voronov wed just months after the state of New York passed a law permitting same-sex marriages in 2011. Their chemistry as a couple is obvious and they are thoroughly entertaining, with a joke never far away.

Voronov grew up in a Ukrainian Jewish family in New York and graduated from Georgetown with a law degree and a keen interest in human rights. He said he sympathizes deeply with gay Russians and craves positive change there.

[Related: Openly gay Olympians, past and present]

"I relate to them completely," Voronov said. "Living in the closet is a very difficult thing. In Russia you are almost forced to live in the closet. I feel very terrible for them. They won't ever be able to live freely and have marriage. [The authorities] don't understand the notion that it is not a choice. They compare it to pedophilia or bestiality … crazy logic."

Under the iron-fisted regime of the Soviet Union, homosexuality was expressly forbidden for decades. The gay community existed only in secret – and old habits die hard. The more time Article 6.21 spent in the spotlight, the more newsprint and airtime it generated, the more many Russian gays feared a severe and potentially violent backlash.

"It is complicated," said a 21-year-old gay St. Petersburg student who gave his name only as Alexei. "Of course the gay propaganda law is a restriction, but some people were more afraid that the criticism from overseas would just incite nationalist and right-wing groups to target gay people even more."

"I don't think it is necessary," said St. Petersburg resident Nikolay Mylyuev, who runs a tour service aimed at gay visitors, when asked about the level of protest associated with the Olympics. "The authorities want to prohibit any gay public events. [Russian] society is not ready for that.

"[Homosexuality] is a little bit hidden in general. People are more discreet here. People believe that maybe [theirs is] a private life so don't tell anybody about that, their families also."

[Related: Think Sochi should have been boycotted? Consider athletes who missed Moscow Games]

St. Petersburg is a city of 4.8 million but has only two known gay nightlife venues. Alexei admitted he would habitually look over his shoulder when entering either – for fear of being recognized by friends or family members, none of whom know he is gay. A broadcast media major fluent in English, he has followed the gay law ruckus closely, and described how it caused him a difficult internal struggle.

"If most gay people in Russia are being honest, they are conflicted when they hear of the international support," Alexei said during an interview last summer in St. Petersburg. "It makes them nervous about what the repercussions could be, but also makes them a little bit stronger inside.

"Maybe we need to be a bit braver and remember there is a long fight to be had, one that is worth fighting for because it will one day make things better for everyone."

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