Saddled with allegations of forced evictions, labor rights abuses, graft, and corruption—along with an estimated record price tag of $50 billion—the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have been the source of international outrage for some time now. But when Russia's Interior Ministry announced last week that the country's so-called anti-gay law—which allows for fining and detaining gay and pro-gay people—would apply during the Games, gay rights and human rights activists around the world turned their focus to the small city on the coast of the Black Sea, one of the warmest corners of Russia.
We put together this backgrounder to help catch you up to speed on all things Sochi:
What's the deal with Russia's anti-gay law? Since President Vladimir Putin signed the new legislation—which passed the Duma with a 436-0 vote—on June 30, there's been a steady stream of reporting on what this law means for the Russian people. In short, Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses allows the government to fine people accused of spreading "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations amongst minors" between 4,000 and 1 million rubles ($120 to $30,000). A law passed in 2012 also bans gay-pride events in Moscow for the next 100 years.
Recent attempts at gay-pride events have deteriorated into violence:
Gay rights protesters after being attacked at a June rally in St. Petersburg Ruslan Shamukov/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA
Protesters attack an LGBT activist during a St. Petersburg event in June. Roman Yandolin/Russian Look/ZUMA
Last weekend, Russian American journalist Masha Gessen—who started Russia's pink-triangle campaign for LGBT acceptance—published a gut-wrenching account in the Guardian of her own decision to move her girlfriend and children back to the United States after years living in Russia. "In June, the 'homosexual propaganda' bill became federal law," she wrote. "The head of the parliamentary committee on the family pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.
"Two things happened to me the same month: I was beaten up in front of parliament for the first time and I realized that in all my interactions, including professional ones, I no longer felt I was perceived as a journalist first: I am now a person with a pink triangle."
What are some other tactics anti-gay activists are using in Russia? Though anti-gay actions and sentiment have been brewing for years—this federal rule comes on the heels of several similar regional laws, which have been enacted in St. Petersburg and other cities since 2006—this law has taken it to new heights: In July, the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance (SHRA), a US-based organization that advocates LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, helped bring international attention to a Russian group called Occupy Pedophilia. Led by notorious Russian neo-Nazi Maksim "Tesak" ("the Hatchet") Martsinkevich, the group has been using social media, primarily VKontakte (Russia's Facebook spinoff), to place fake dating ads to lure gay men. Once face-to-face with the men, group members interrogate and torture them, and a video of the encounter is put on YouTube. Here's one such video from late July. (Warning: The content of the video is disturbing.)
Some of the videos are also placed on the group's website, where victims are categorized by sexual orientation and users can rate the videos. As of this writing, Occupy Pedophilia has nearly 450 regional chapters listed on VKontakte.
Screenshot from VKontakte
Larry Poltavtsev, president and founder of SHRA, explains that months ago, Martsinkevich released a video declaring his own special plan for ending gay-pride events in Russia. Though it disappeared for a while, Poltavtsev says, it recently reappeared on YouTube (see below). In it, a shirtless Martsinkevich says this is his first time directly addressing the Moscow government. He explains that it's a shame the government must sink so many resources into its gay-pride ban—dealing with civil rights lawsuits, paying out compensation, and the like. Instead, he suggests, why not simply make gay-pride events legal—but leave them without security or police presence? "This will be the first and last time," Martsinkevich concludes, "that homosexuals will try to hold their parade in Russia."
Poltavtsev also mounted a petition on Change.org to add Russian lawmakers Vitaly Milonov and Elena Mizulina, both of whom have sponsored anti-gay legislation, to the US Congress' Magnitsky list of human rights violators. It currently has more than 11,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, an April 2012 TV appearance by Dmitri Kiselev—TV anchor and deputy director of VGTRK, Russia's state-owned television and radio holding company—surfaced last week, showing Kiselev, a state employee, saying the following to a round of applause: "I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough. They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
In an interview this week on Moscow radio station Echo of Moscow, Kiselev defended his remarks, explaining that, to his knowledge, these practices are already employed in other Western countries, including the United States. (He cited the US Food and Drug Administration as a source.)
Protestors at the Texas capitol this past Friday, before the HB 2 vote
This weekend, the Texas Senate voted to pass HB 2, the abortion bill that state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered two weeks ago. The law bansmost abortions after 20 weeks, requires clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and requires abortions to take place in ambulatory surgical centers. The law will likely close all but 5 of the state's 42 clinics. Gov. Rick Perry has confirmed he'll sign the bill into law, possibly as early as the middle of this week.
While Davis' 11-hour stand focused national attention on this bill, Texas lawmakers have quietly slipped at least seven other bills onto the legislative agenda that would restrict women's access to abortion. All of them have been proposed since the July 1 opening of the special legislative session called by Perry to force a vote on HB 2 after Davis and her supporters successfully stalled the first vote. These special sessions are unique in that a bill only requires a simple majority to pass rather than the two-thirds majority required during a regular session.
With that advantage in hand, the state's Republican lawmakers have gone on an abortion restriction spree. Here are the bills they've proposed in the last two weeks:
SB 9: Sponsored by Sen. Dan Patrick, who also sponsored Texas' sonogram bill, SB 9 would require that abortion-inducing drugs be dispensed only at abortion clinics. HB 2 already contains a provision requiring this, though it gives providers a little more leeway on dosage choices. Combined with HB 2's other provisions, this rule means women could have to travel for hours to obtain mifepristone and misoprostol, the FDA-approved drug regimen used for early nonsurgical abortions. The law then requires them to return to the clinic for a follow-up appointment 14 days later.
HB 17: This bill would prohibit sex-selective abortions. Abortion rights advocates consider such bills, which have passed in several other states, tangential and unenforceable ploys to further restrict abortion rights.
HB 26: If passed, this bill would require women to fill out a "coerced abortion form" before the procedure, confirming they are acting voluntarily. The bill's vague wording leaves room for a physician to deny an abortion if they believe she seems coerced—even if that's not indicated on the form or said by her outright.
Abortion and minors
HB 18: Though Texas requires parental notification and consent for a minor to get an abortion, currently minors may bypass that requirement by way of a court petition. This proposed law would further complicate the red-tape-heavy process in a number of ways, including eliminating an existing rule that allows minors to move forward with the procedure if a judge does not rule within two days of a hearing.
HB 27: Taking HB 18 even further, this bill would extend the amount of time a court has to consider a minor's initial request for an abortion (and subsequent appeals) from two to five days. It would also require minors to testify about their reasons for wanting an abortion, be evaluated by a state mental-health counselor, and prove their maturity with examples like "traveling independently" and "managing her own financial affairs."
Sex ed and abortion
HB 50: This bill aims "to reduce the occurrence of abortions and the use of abortion facilities" by creating a public education program encouraging men to support women with unexpected pregnancies. That might not be a terrible idea, but the bill says that any state agency can work on the program (pregnancy info brought to you by the Texas Department of Transportation?!) and that they can't contract with any health care providers, facilities, or advocacy groups to educate the public.
HB 22: If passed, this bill would prevent any affiliate of an abortion provider from providing information on sexuality or family planning for sex ed curricula. That means any information at all, whether it's related to abortion or not. So Planned Parenthood, for example, which offers abortions (though they make up just 3 percent of their services, nationally) would be barred from providing any information—about women's health, STDs, contraception, etc.—for use in Texas classrooms.
And across the aisle…
Democrats have proposed a few bills during this special session to counter the stream of anti-abortion legislation. SB 23 would preventhospitals from denying admitting privileges to abortion-clinic doctors on the basis of where they work. Another measure, HB 45, mandates that all abortion laws passed in the Texas Legislature from now on can't go into effect until 60 days after Texas abolishes the death penalty.
New Orleans artist Jackie Sumell has made a career out of building a house for a client who may never live there. There are a few other hitches: He can't pay her. He's not great at visualizing big spaces. His demands are at once idiosyncratic and utterly ordinary: a bear rug and mirrored ceilings, a garden and a pool. He's very slow on correspondence. But for Sumell, it's deeply rewarding work, emotionally if not financially. "I have an amazing life because of this project," she says.
Sumell's client is Herman Wallace, a member of the inmate crew known as the Angola 3 who has been held in solitary confinement for 41 years and counting, for a conviction based on highly questionable evidence. (That included witness testimony from jailhouse informants who had been promised special privileges, including two who have since recanted and one who was legally blind.)
Sumell is one of Herman's longest-standing pen pals, and guided by his vision—sketched in hundreds of letters over the past 12 years—she is building his dream digs. Their project is the subject of Herman's House, a documentary premiering Monday night on PBS.
Herman's cell, reconstructed by Sumell Mizue Aizeki
The story has taken on a new urgency. In June, Wallace was diagnosed with an aggressive liver cancer. The prognosis is grave, and the activists who have fought for his cause for decades—Sumell, Wallace's sister, Amnesty International, and many more—are mobilizing to urge his release. For them, the film's premiere has new magnitude: What began as a work of art and activism has, for better or worse, become Wallace's only lifeline to the outside.
"I never thought this would become Herman's only way to get out of prison," Sumell told me recently. But that's how she sees it now.
It's old news that the United States fares quite poorly on the sick leave front: Unlike most developed countries, we have no federal law mandating paid days off for ill workers. Only four cities and one state have passed their own.
So unless you're dining in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, or Connecticut, your state's waiters could very well give you whatever nasty bug they're nursing while preparing and serving your grub because they don't have the option to stay home without losing pay.*
To make matters even worse for restaurant workers and diners, a spate of "preemption bills"—which bar localities from makings laws requiring paid sick leave—has been surging through state legislatures with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Restaurant Association, one of ALEC's members. The first of these bills was passed in May 2011 in Wisconsin. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida's version into law, making it the eighth state to preemptively block paid sick leave for its workers (and the 13th to try) in just two years.
Read moreabout how Disney and Darden Restaurants helped pass preemption legislation in Florida.
In many states, a number of chain restaurants and other establishments have come out in support of these bills, monetarily or otherwise. A few examples:
Their efforts have been successful. Here's how the sweep of preemption bills has played out nationwide: (Click on each state for more details.)
Preemption Bills: 2011-2013
So how did this rapid spread come about? Known for writing model legislation and then shopping it around the country, ALEC set to work doing just that with Wisconsin's preemption bill soon after it passed in 2011. At a meeting of the group's Labor and Business Regulation subcommittee a few months later, attendees were given a copy (PDF) of the legislation, as well as a map of cities and states with paid sick leave mandates, prepared by the NRA.
The NRA got involved because it considers paid sick leave a threat to its industry, says Saru Jayaraman, codirector of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United: In 2011, the group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to successfully shut down a sick leave measure in Denver. But as morecities have tried to enact rules guaranteeing paid sick leave, bills preempting that possibility state-wide, says Jayaraman, have become the NRA's faster, cheaper alternative.
"I think they've come to the realization that it's not a sustainable model to pour a million dollars into stopping this," Jayaraman says. "So they found another way to do it. It's undemocratic. It's kind of like the Republican party deciding, 'We're not gonna get votes the normal way, so let's not let people vote.'"
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 76 percent of restaurant workers don't get paid sick days. By Jayaraman's estimates and her organization's surveys, it's actually closer to 90 percent—about 9 million people nationwide.
Soon after the 2011 ALEC meeting, one preemption bill passed in Louisiana in 2012, and soon a few more were introduced. In the last six months, though, their momentum has surged: Since February, six more states have passed these laws, while five others have introduced them.
Update (6/27/2013):This morning, the Fort Worth Star-Telegramreported that, according to Joel Burns, who holds Sen. Davis' former Fort Worth City Council seat, Davis was equipped with a catheter during her filibuster. When contacted to confirm, Davis' office responded that the senator "made all necessary preparations."
While obsessively watching state Sen. Wendy Davis' heroic filibuster in the Texas Legislature yesterday, I couldn't help thinking the obvious: 13 hours without peeing is a long time. Was she just holding it? Or wearing some sort of, er, contraption? (The options on suchthings, by the way, are many.)
For the most part, the logistics on this tend to be something politicians keep mum about. "It's a kind of urological mystery," Joseph Crespino, biographer of legendary filibusterer Strom Thurmond, told the BBC last year.
But over time, filibustering heavyweights have tried some pretty incredible tactics to avoid defeat by bathroom—and have gone on to share their tales. A few of them below:
1.Steam baths and a surreptitious urine bucket: Thurmond, who completed the longest federal filibuster in US history (24 hours, 18 minutes) in 1957, took the minimalist route with a bucket. His aides set it up in the cloakroom so that Thurmond could pee while keeping one foot on the Senate floor.
But even before that, Thurmond took daily steam baths to prepare for the epic speech, to make it easier for his body to absorb, rather than expel, fluid.
Thurmond also got lucky: After speaking for about three hours, Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater asked him to temporarily yield the floor for an insertion in the Congressional Record. This gave Thurmond a few precious minutes to make his one and only trip to the restroom.
2. When without a bathroom, bring the bathroom to you! In 2001, then St. Louis Alderwoman Irene Smith staged a filibuster during a City Hall debate to protest a ward redistricting plan that she believed would have hurt the city's black communities. Nature called, but rather than yielding the floor and ending her filibuster, Smith's aides came down and surrounded her with a sheet, quilt, and tablecloth while she relieved herself in a trash can. Here's video of the incident:
Later, she was charged with violating the city's public urination prohibition, but was never convicted: Given the sheets, there wasn't any hard proof of the act.
3. Astronaut bags and a light diet: In 1977, then-Texas Sen. Bill Meier staged a 43-hour filibuster over a bill he believed to be an attack on the state's open records laws. He wore an "astronaut bag" on the Senate floor, and when it filled up, then Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby would arrange to take a message from the House, while Meier ran to the women's restroom (closest to his desk) to empty the bag. On each trip, two sergeants-at-arms came with him to ensure he never sat down. Meier also said he ate lightly in the days preceding his filibuster. Today, Meier is a judge on the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
4. Catheters: After his filibuster protesting the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, Rand Paul told Glenn Beck that he'd considered fitting himself with a catheter for the speech, but decided against it, even though he'd tried them before.
5. Adult diapers: Lots of jokes and rumors have flown around about various filibustering politicians pulling a Lisa Nowak and using these, though we haven't been able to find any confirmed instances.