Speaking Out Against Sochi

Protesters gather at the McDonalds in Times Square to urge Olympic sponsors to speak out against Russia's anti-gay laws. (Stav Ziv, NY City Lens)

Protesters gather at the McDonalds in Times Square to urge Olympic sponsors to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws. (Stav Ziv, NY City Lens)

Daniil Furmanov, who was born in Russia, stood under the blaring red and yellow lights of the McDonalds at Times Square Wednesday evening, holding an oversized rainbow umbrella above his head.

Furmanov, attending his first demonstration ever, joined dozens of other protesters who gathered to urge McDonalds and other corporate sponsors to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws. The event, organized by All Out, was one of 20 in cities around the world including Jerusalem, London, and Paris. As the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics drew near, advocacy groups and supporters of the movement leveraged the international attention to put the spotlight on LGBT rights.

“I was terrified what would be for me if I was there,” said Furmanov, 29, who immigrated to the United States when he was 16 and has been openly gay for eight years. He doesn’t remember the policies and attitudes being so harsh when he was still in his home city of St. Petersburg.

But now, “it’s really cruel. There’s terrorism against people,” he said. “People get beaten and killed and go to prisons so I’m trying to deliver this message.”

Dozens of governments have spoken out since Russia’s first regional anti-gay propaganda law was enacted in St. Petersburg, according to Andre Banks, co-founder and executive director of All Out. The organization—which aims to build an international movement of people who push for equality for gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people—has been campaigning for over two years against regional and national anti-gay laws in Russia.

“Almost everybody else has gotten on board with the very obvious consensus. These laws are wrong,” Banks told the crowd, pointing to the UN’s condemnation of Russia’s laws and those of dozens of governments around the world.

“McDonalds? Nothing to say. Coke? Nothing to say,” he shouted.

Coca Cola, for example, updated an August statement on its website promoting diversity and inclusion, and highlighting company policies that demonstrate support for the LGBT community.

“There’s no room for discrimination under the Golden Arches,” said Becca Hary, a spokeswoman for McDonalds, in an email. “We support the spirit of the Olympic Games and its ability to unite the world in a positive and inspirational way.”

But neither has explicitly said they stand against Russia’s anti-gay laws.

“They’ve been making wishy-washy statements about their support for human rights generally,” said Ralph Jurgens, an East Village resident originally from Canada. So far, only three Olympic sponsors—AT&T, DeVry, and Chobani—have made explicit statements against the laws, according to GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

“Of course, Russia is the biggest culprit,” said Jurgens. “But these are the companies in our countries and we should be speaking to them. They shouldn’t be funding this event.” To date, over 140,000 people have signed All Out’s online petition calling on Olympic corporate sponsors to speak out.

McDonalds in Times Square was not the only center of activity Wednesday. That same evening, Pussy Riot spoke at the Amnesty International Bringing Human Rights Home Concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Members of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking LGBT group based in NYC, chose that venue to protest the anti-gay laws. Thursday, Queer Nation organized a demonstration outside the Russian Consulate on the Upper East Side.

Throughout the Olympic games, All Out will be continuing what it calls its Principle 6 campaign, based on the sixth principle of the Olympic charter that says, “Sport does not discriminate.” Olympians in Sochi will be speaking and using social media to support Principle 6 throughout the next few weeks, said Banks.

“I’m here because now is when the world is paying attention,” said Gabriel Lewenstein, a recent college graduate who works at an environmental NGO, and was the first to arrive for the protest outside McDonalds. “We have to leverage that to put pressure on Russia to loosen their policies and join the modern world.”

Meanwhile, Furmanov has signed a petition that he will not visit his birth country until the laws are dropped.

“I love my city. St. Petersburg is beautiful. But after these laws I’m not going to go,” he said. It’s not just fear that keeps him away; he has friends and family who would protect him, but still he says he won’t go. “I’m actually ashamed.”