When not wrangling copy for the MoJo crew, Ian writes about immigration, sports, and Latin America. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate. Got a comment or a tip? Email him: igordon [at] motherjones [dot] com.
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.)
Over at Slate yesterday, editor David Plotz wrote about the site's decision to never again refer to Washington's professional football team as the Redskins. In explaining the change, Plotz argued that although the franchise's (racist) first owner, George Preston Marshall, likely chose the name in an effort "to invoke Indian bravery and toughness, not to impugn Indians," ultimately "the world changes, and all of a sudden a well-intentioned symbol is an embarrassment."
It is an absolute embarrassment—for the NFL, for the nation's capital, and for nanny-underpayer/owner Dan Snyder, who has stubbornly vowed never to change the team's name, even in the face of common decency and a federal trademark suit.
And so, in an admittedly small gesture, Mother Jones is also tweaking our house style guide, joining Slate and a group of other publications, from The New Republicto Washington City Paper. From here on out, we will refer to the team online and in print as "Washington" or "Washington's pro football team" or, if we get sassy, "the Washington [Redacted]."
For those of you who come to Mother Jones for your breaking NFL news…never mind, I can't even.
There is a chance, however, that the term will end up back on our pages. We certainly won't strike it from a quote. And if we end up writing a post or two about how Snyder still hasn't changed the name, despite increasing scrutiny, we reserve the right to use it again—if only to highlight how incredibly out-of-touch and backward the Washington football team's owner truly is.
On the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader's 95th birthday, let's revisit some of the songs that helped put—and keep—Mandela in the minds of millions.
1. The Special AKA: "Nelson Mandela"
This super-popular and catchy protest song was released in 1984, when Mandela was nearly 20 years into his life sentence. Here it's performed with a little backup from Elvis Costello and the English Beat's Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling.
2. Hugh Masekela, "Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)"
Masekela's wish to see the imprisoned Mandela "walking down the street" was all the more poignant considering that the South African trumpeter had been living in exile in the United States since the early '60s.
3. Brenda Fassie, "Black President"
Fassie, a South African pop sensation who died in 2004, sang this tribute in 1990, four years before Mandela was elected South Africa's first black (and democratically elected) president.
4. Johnny Clegg & Savuka, "Asimbonanga"
Mandela's absence was also lamented in the South African singer's 1986 hit, whose title and chorus means "we have not seen him" in Zulu.
5. Salif Keita, "Mandela"
"You shed tears for others," sings the Malian star in this 1995 tribute.
6. Vusi Mahlasela, "When You Come Back"
Before it was used to promote the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Mahlasela's 1994 song alluded both to Mandela and Vuyisile Mini, an African National Congress activist and songwriter who was executed in 1964.
7. Miriam Makeba, "Ndodemnyama (Beware, Verwoerd)"
This 1950s song written by Mini doesn't mention Mandela, but it warns Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, of the struggle to come.
8. Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City"
Mandela gets a quick visual shout-out in this '80s-tastic video. (And see if you can spot Run D.M.C., Lou Reed, and Keith Richards among the many musical celebrities crammed into this single penned by Little Steven Van Zandt.)
9. Dishonorable mention: Nickelback, "If Everyone Cared"
There have been some crummy songs about Mandela, too. This one has nothing to say about Mandela (or anything for that matter), but it does shamelessly include him in its video.
There's a scene in the new documentary Documented when former Washington Post reporter turned immigration reform advocate Jose Antonio Vargas goes to see Mitt Romney speak before the Iowa caucus. Four years before, Vargas had covered the caucus for the Post, but this time around he stood on the side of a townhall-style event in Cedar Rapids, holding a sign that read "I AM AN AMERICAN W/O PAPERS." Ever since his blockbuster New York Times Magazine article, "My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant," came out in 2011, Vargas has become, in his words, "a walking uncomfortable conversation," and his presence at the Romney talk was, well, sort of awkward.
Eventually, the local police came at the behest of the event's host and asked him to leave. On his way to the exit, Vargas turned to an officer and asked if he was being arrested. "No, no, no," replied the cop. Sensing an opportunity, Vargas pushed further: What do Iowa police do after stumbling upon an undocumented person? Identify the person, replied the cop, and call the proper federal authorities. "Are you going to do that?" Vargas asked. The officer's response was almost embarrassed: "No, sir."
Telling his personal story has in many ways become Vargas' work, starting with the Times Magazine piece and continuing with a Time cover story a year later. (And, as he freely admits, it likely has protected him from immigration enforcement.) Now, two years after he outed himself as undocumented, he's back with a new chapter, writing and codirecting a film that centers on his relationship with his mother, Emelie Salinas, whom he hasn't seen since leaving the Philippines 20 years ago.
Documented's premiere last Friday at Washington, DC's AFI Docs Film Festival—just as the Gang of Eight's immigration bill gains steam in the Senate—was timed for maximum exposure and influence. So what do Vargas and his advocacy group, Define American, have up their sleeves for this time next year? "I don't know what I'm going to do for the third anniversary," he told me last week. "I want by the third anniversary to have a green card."
Mother Jones: If I understand correctly, this wasn't exactly your initial plan for this film.
Jose Antonio Vargas: The original plan was I was going to make a film that was like Waiting for "Superman" meets the DREAM Act. I figured I had come out in the New York Times and was in a very privileged position to do that, right? After that piece I was like: I'm done, I don't have to tell you about me anymore—now I can go out there and be an undocumented journalist filmmaker and then tell the stories of other DREAMers. So that was my original conception. And then I started filming, that's why I went to Alabama, I went to Iowa, and I started finding DREAMers, mostly online, to do a film on how undocumented people are using social media to tell their own stories. Social media has been in many ways the backbone of the DREAMer movement; the DREAMer movement would not have happened if Twitter and Facebook and YouTube did not exist. I mean this is how people were literally able to find each other, form listservs, all that kind of stuff.
Nearly four years ago, former University of California-Los Angeles basketball star Ed O'Bannon sued (PDF) the National Collegiate Athletic Association and trademark and licensing firm Collegiate Licensing Co. for using his likeness in video games, TV shows, and a variety of other media—all without paying him. O'Bannon had signed a waiver granting the NCAA permission to use his image before starting his career at UCLA, but he argued that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws in partnering with CLC and others to keep student-athletes from getting paid.
Today, the case comes to a major crossroads as a federal judge hears arguments on whether to certify current and former college athletes as a class—a decision that could lead to an enormous restructuring of college sports as we know them.