At a time when U.S. international relations have been tenuous on numerous fronts, such as the imprisonment of a U.S. citizen in Iran for his faith, the administration has been clear about its opposition to Russia's presumed targeting of homosexuals.
President Obama appointed former tennis star Billy Jean King, currently a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as a delegate to the opening ceremony. Hockey player and silver medalist Caitlin Cahow, also openly gay, will be a delegate to the closing ceremony.
Obama said in a statement all of the delegation members "are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports" amid a backdrop of media reports targeting anti-homosexual legislation in Russia adopted in June.
Russian lawmakers had approved a ban on the distribution of "gay propaganda" to minors. Under the law, those accused of enticing minors to engage in homosexual acts through the use of media, such as literature, video, and the Internet could face stiff fines. Gay rallies where minors are present also were banned.
The law quickly drew the ire of pro-gay groups like Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GLAAD (originally known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, both of which have said the law is discriminatory.
Fred Sainz, vice president for communications with HRC, said the law is an "abomination" and "so obtuse that circumstances can be contrived to prosecute LGBT individuals who are simply living their lives."
"The Russian Duma has a passed an 'anti-propaganda' law, which outlaws speaking favorably of LGBT people, holding a rainbow flag, holding hands, or even the simple act of coming out," GLAAD said in a statement.
In reality, the law does none of those things. According to the Russian News Agency RT, the law's goal is to prohibit the dissemination of information to children about forming "non-traditional sexual concepts," "promoting the distorted understanding of social equality of traditional and non-traditional relations and also unwanted solicitation of information that could provoke interest in such relations."
President Obama, during an August news conference following the adoption of the law, was asked if the U.S. should boycott the Winter Olympics in response to Russia's new law.
"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is, maybe, some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker," Obama said.
The statement from the White House Dec. 17 said the makeup of the U.S. delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States." That comment has since been repeated by Press Secretary Jay Carney, White House spokespersons Josh Earnest and Shin Inouye and others.
HRC, GLAAD and other gay advocacy groups have issued statements claiming that homosexual American athletes who travel to the Olympics may be subjected to fines and deportation, but the head of the Russian Duma's Committee on Sports and Youth, Igor Ananskikh, provided assurances to the International Olympic Committee in August that the law will not affect those attending or taking part in the games if the law prohibiting homosexual advocacy among minors is obeyed.
Russia decriminalized homosexuality among males in 1993, while the practice among women was never illegal, with the new law framed to protect minors only.
Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko told RT, "No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then, of course, he will be held accountable."
RIA Novosti, another Russian news agency, said Russia's Interior Ministry noted that any claim of potential discrimination against those with "non-traditional sexual orientations" is "unfounded and contrived."
"The law enforcement agencies can have no qualms with people who harbor a non-traditional sexual orientation and do not commit such acts , do not conduct any kind of provocation and take part in the Olympics peacefully," the statement from the Interior Ministry said.
Russia's Orthodox Church is firmly supportive of the legislation passed in June. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church in Russia, was quoted by ITAR-TASS, Russia's official news agency, as saying in July that Russia was attempting to avoid the "slavery of sin" that is leading many western nations to "self-destruction."
"Where sin is elected through freedom, there comes death, terror and dictatorship," Kirill said at the church's national cathedral in Red Square. "This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything in our powers to ensure that sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law, because that would mean that the nation has embarked on a path of self-destruction."
Press Secretary Jay Carney read from a prepared statement in the White House daily press briefing Dec. 18, saying neither President Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Sochi for the Olympics, citing conflicting schedules rather than any protest of the new law.
Carney was asked by NBC/MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd if the president's absence was a statement on gay rights in Russia, but Carney refused to deviate from his written comments.
After further questions about how the president's absence might be perceived, Carney said the president's displeasure with the Russian's approach to gay rights is "not a message we would wait to send in this manner."
"The president has been very clear that he finds it offensive, the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, for example. We take very clear and strong stands on that issue, as well as the curtailment of the civil society in Russia, the harassment caused to those who protest corruption," Carney said.
Obama's absence from Sochi, although not an "official boycott," will mark the first time in seven Olympics that a sitting president, a member of the president's family or the vice president has not attended an opening ceremony.
While the Obama administration often has voiced opposition to Russia's law prohibiting homosexual activism among youth, the White House has not extended its public advocacy to various other issues of human rights, such as imprisonment of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini in Iran. Saeed, an Iranian-born pastor, has been imprisoned since mid-2012 for, according to the regime, "corrupting the morale of Islamic youth" through the preaching of Christianity.
Abedini, a former underground church leader in Iran, has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in building an orphanage. According to a report from The Gulf Today in the United Arab Emirates, Iranian officials have called his imprisonment "definitive" since his conviction was upheld in August 2013.
Though President Obama reportedly urged the American pastor's release in May in the first talks between the two countries in 30 years, Abedini's release was not a topic in the recent nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran, according to Secretary of State John Kerry. The administration voiced no public call for Saeed's rights as an American and Christian in more than six months of negotiations with the Iranian government.
Gregory Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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