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'Why Glasgow must not be seen to be following Putin's lead at Games'

The Sochi Winter Olympics reinforced the myth that politics and sports do not mix.

Ahead of the event, the Russian government enacted tough anti-homosexual laws, amid reports of rising violence against the country's LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex) community. In the face of international criticism, President Putin was unapologetic; any homosexuals visiting Sochi, he declared publicly, should refrain from spreading "gay propaganda" and they should "leave children in peace".

Gay rights activists and journalists were detained; Cossacks horse-whipped protesters. For critics, the fact that Russia was awarded the Games reflects how - yet again - principle has been crushed under the wheels of the Olympic juggernaut.

When Glasgow hosts the 20th Commonwealth Games, sporting events will clearly be the main focus. However, government-endorsed homophobia, illuminated so brightly by the Russian Winter Olympics, will still be in the spotlight. Why? Because the nations Glasgow is set to host carry some uncomfortable baggage. Homosexuality is illegal in 41 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries. Penalties include 25 years' imprisonment in Trinidad and Tobago, and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Six stipulate life imprisonment: Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Guyana.

One thing is certain: Glasgow's Games will be accompanied by vigorous protest in support of LGBTI rights. With memories of Sochi still fresh, how have Scotland's political and civic leaders responded to this prospect? And what stance will they take on the protests once the Games begin?

International organisations are collaborating to ensure Glasgow's sporting events are accompanied by "visible protest" about LGBTI and wider human-rights issues. The US-based group All Out aims to project an "equality message"onto buildings in Glasgow. An exhibition called LGBTI People of the Commonwealth will be shown at Pride House, the LGBTI venue for the Games. Discussion events are now under way, aimed at establishing what other forms of protest might be possible.

The Equality Network has maintained communication with the Glasgow 2014 organisers and with the Scottish Government, offering advice on how to create a welcoming environment for LGBTI visitors to Glasgow. The Scottish Government has been supportive. It is fair to say those involved in organising Glasgow's Games are committed to creating a permissive environment for protest.

So far, so heart-warmingly good. But what happens when the Games begin? Having facilitated a platform for vibrant protest, will officialdom then pretend it doesn't exist? Once the protests are captured by the world's journalists and by the inevitable mass of hand-held phone cameras, it is certain Scotland's civic and political leaders will be asked to opine on the protests and on the issues which have sparked them. How will they respond when faced with a camera or a microphone?

Seasoned followers of World Cups, Olympics and Commonwealth Games will know the convention is often to bat away awkward questions with banal diplomat-speak. But will Scotland's political and civic leaders take such an insipid position?

Rather than passing up the chance to speak out, is it possible Gordon Matheson would instead seize the opportunity to highlight that lesbian and gay people are criminalised in 80% of Commonwealth countries? Would Nicola Sturgeon agree the Commonwealth must do more to uphold the principles of its charter? Might Willie Rennie back critics' assertions that in failing to take action, the Commonwealth is in collusion with homophobia?

Speaking late last year, Shona Robison - Secretary for Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners' Rights - said: "The Scottish Government firmly believes there is no place for prejudice or discrimination, in any part of the world, and everyone deserves to be treated fairly regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity". She added: "Countries will be in no doubt about our values when we welcome the Commonwealth to Scotland".

If "Scottish values" are indeed to express themselves during the Glasgow Games, how might they influence the words and actions of our political and civic leaders as they host representatives of governments which encourage homophobic persecution? Would it be "the right thing" to speak out? Or could it be politically damaging? Would speaking out risk tarnishing the Glasgow Games? Would Scotland's image on the international stage be strengthened or weakened if its leaders took a vocal stance against homophobia and the Commonwealth's apparent unwillingness to address it? These questions may weigh especially hard on those MSPs who voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

Many Scots will want only sport to make headlines at the Glasgow Games. But many others will feel if the Games truly are to reflect "Scottish values", there will not be a blanket silence from officialdom about government-endorsed persecution which sees sexual minorities across the Commonwealth harassed, imprisoned and killed.

Contextual targeting label: 
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