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Toronto activists to pressure Sochi Olympic sponsors, Canadian government

Gay Russian refugee speaks at town hall to brainstorm ideas for furthering LGBT rights

Russian asylum seeker Maxim Zhuravlev at the Aug 14 Toronto meeting. Credit: Elah Feder

A group of Toronto activists is preparing to ramp up the pressure on the Canadian government and sponsors of the Sochi Winter Olympics over Russia’s anti-gay policies.

Community members met Aug 14 for a town hall at the 519,  where break-out groups brainstormed a series of actions, including an MP letter writing campaign and demonstrations targeting the CBC — the official Canadian broadcaster for the Games — as well as corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola.

Other groups worked on an upcoming national day of action to demand that the Canadian Olympic Committee and other sports organizations condemn Russia’s actions, establish a Sochi Pride House and protect participating athletes, including those who show support for LGBTQ rights.

Pride Toronto brought in Russian asylum seeker Maxim Zhuravlevfrom Vancouver for the event. Zhuravlevspoke of the current climate in Russia, where he says gay people live in fear of violence, losing their jobs, or eviction from their home.

“I couldn’t possibly have a career in Russia,” said Zhuravlev, “All of my energy there went into hiding, into lying to people that I am straight, into choosing safe itineraries so I do not come across homophobic thugs.”

He thanked the Canadian government and Canadians for welcoming him and giving him hope of a “free, open, and safe life in Canada.”

Asked for his thoughts on a Sochi Boycott, Zhuravlevargued that the priority should be keeping young, LGBT athletes away from Russia. “We don’t want them traumatized by the hostile environment there,” Zhuravlevsaid. “Sports achievement is not the best, the most important thing in life.”

His position contrasts with prominent gay athletes like Mark Tewksbury and Johnny Weir — who have said boycotts will only hurt athletes — and others who plan to participate wearing rainbow pins or other symbols of pride and solidarity.

Like the international community, Russian organizations remain divided on the issue, with RUSA LGBT in favour of a boycott and the Russian LGBT Network against.

Roy Mitchell, who organized the town hall as a follow-up to international rallies that took place on August 3, was clear that the event and campaign are about more than Russia.

The evening’s first speaker was Pride Toronto board member Kerry Bell, who described her experiences of hate and discrimination in Jamaica. Her speech was followed by the reading of a letter from Ugandan activist Andrew Waiswa about rights violations in his country.

“For me, I think it’s about using the Olympics as a spotlight and a springboard for global human rights,” Mitchell said, adding that after years of same-sex marriage in Canada, he, like many others, has grown weary of the marriage discussion and is ready to move beyond it to fighting for fundamental LGBTQ rights internationally.

The campaign members are currently working on brand development — including taglines like “I am gay propaganda”— and considering creating rainbow-patterned matryoshka dolls. The group will hold a follow-up meeting in a few weeks.

Follow progress on Facebook and Twitter at under #TOwithRussia.