Italian activist Vladimir Luxuria’s protest at Sochi recalls ’80 Moscow Olympics


Vladimir Luxuria, a former Communist lawmaker in the Italian parliament and prominent crusader for transgender rights, says she was detained by police at the Olympics after being stopped while carrying a rainbow flag that read in Russian: “Gay is OK.” Police on Monday denied this happened. (David Goldman/AP)
February 17

— Leave it to Vladimir Luxuria to keep up an Italian Olympic tradition. The transgender activist — and former Communist member of the Italian parliament — repeated history when she turned up here to support gay rights.

On Monday, she strolled through Olympic Park wearing an elaborate headdress that could have been inspired by Marie Antoinette, except it was in bright rainbow colors. Her elegant black outfit was accented by rainbow-colored flowing sateen. No one bothered her, according to the Associated Press, until she went into Shayba Arena for a hockey game and was escorted out by policemen who drove her away.

On Sunday she said she was detained for several hours after holding up a banner at the Olympic Park that said “Gay Is Okay.” She said she was released without charges. Police said that the arrest never happened.

“We have talked to police,” Alexandra Kosterina, a spokesman for the Russian Olympic Organizing Committee, said Monday, “and, according to police, there is no record whatsoever of any detention or arrest.”

Russian authorities have made it clear they wanted to avoid a confrontation with the West over gay rights at the Olympics.

What happened to the 48-year-old Luxuria was rather different from what one of her countrymen endured in 1980 when he tried to protest anti-gay laws during the Moscow Summer Olympics -- and was quickly grabbed and hauled away by the ungentle KGB. And it was quite unlike what happened to a Sochi environmentalist Monday.

The environmental activist, 25-year-old David Khakim, stood in front of the Olympic rings in downtown Sochi holding up a sign saying “Free Evgeny Vitishko.”

Police quickly hustled Khakim away, chiding him for being unpatriotic. After an interrogation, he was taken to court, which heard his case behind closed doors for “security” reasons. Under Russian law, single picketers are allowed to protest without obtaining official permission. But a special order pertaining to Olympic security now requires permits even for single protesters. Khakim was sentenced to 30 hours of labor.

Vitishko is an environmental activist who last week was ordered to serve three years in a penal colony after being found guilty of vandalizing a fence surrounding construction in a protected forest. Human rights organizations called the imprisonment an effort to silence Vitishko’s criticism of Olympic construction. Vitishko declared a hunger strike Sunday to protest his imprisonment.

Although they have not been reluctant to pursue local activists, Russians have been less eager to take on foreigners, at least in public, even in 1980.

At the Summer Olympics that year, Vincenzo Francone, a 32-year-old Italian gay activist, walked into Red Square and tried to handcuff himself to a barrier. He was protesting a Soviet law that not only made homosexuality illegal but also punished it with up to five years in prison. (That was the price men had to pay. Gay women were considered sick and sent to mental hospitals.)

The KGB, on full alert to prevent any sign of protest in 1980, dragged Francone away before he even came close to handcuffing himself. To prevent the world from seeing what had happened, news reporters were collared and beaten, and their film was confiscated. One journalist said he later saw Francone lying on the floor while officers kicked him.

A French reporter said at the time that a KGB officer confronted him and asked him whether he wanted to keep living. “I said yes,” the journalist said. “They said, ‘But if we see you again, we’ll kill you and break both your legs.’ ”

Francone was soon put on a plane out of the country.

Today, although Russian officials remain opposed to public protest, they have repeatedly said everyone will be welcome at these Olympics. Homosexuality is no longer illegal; the Soviet law was repealed in 1993, as President Vladimir Putin has often pointed out.

But last year Putin signed a law prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. While Russian officials say the law is meant to protect children and not discriminate against gays, it appears to assume that children can be converted to homosexuality by hearing about it. Putin and other officials say gays are welcome at the Olympics, as long as they leave children alone.

On Monday, Olympic officials dodged the question when asked whether Luxuria would be welcomed back to the Games.

“On the wider issue, as we have said very often, I am sure the Games will not be used as a platform for any demonstration, and we hope that continues,” said Mark Adams, spokesman for the International Olympic Committee.

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