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In Sochi gay rights debate, stars stay offstage

Tuesday - 2/18/2014, 7:04am  ET

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2014 file photo, Madonna participates in Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" Concert at the Barclays Center in New York. Madonna's pro-gay statements during a concert in Russia in 2013 made a big splash. But entertainment insiders say that when it comes to making a statement at the Winter Olympics, the opinions of athletes, more than celebrities, are more likely to make a difference. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

AP Entertainment Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The combination appeared custom-made for a grand display of Hollywood activism: a stirring human rights cause and the international platform that is the Winter Olympics.

But halfway through the competition, film and TV stars have been background players in the outcry against Russia's policies governing gays.

U.S gay rights groups have enlisted celebrities to speak out, largely online, in support of Russian activists. But such efforts haven't yielded the kind of splashy headlines that followed Lady Gaga's and Madonna's pro-gay statements during concerts in Russia last year.

The issue that had gained momentum before the games has been overshadowed by medal counts and weather updates. Aside from an NBC commentator's scholarly murmurings on gay rights during the carefully opaque opening ceremony, there have been only scattered news reports.

Exceptions have bubbled up. During the weekend, the singer Rihanna posted an Instagram photo, linked to her verified, 34-million-follower Twitter account, showing her wearing a hat with the logo P6. The Principle 6 campaign challenges Russia's crackdown on gay rights, including its law banning so-called gay "propaganda." It takes its name from the sixth "fundamental principle" listed in the International Olympic Committee's charter.

Yet this may be a moment when more from Hollywood -- so fervent in its support of gay rights at home -- isn't the answer, entertainment insiders say. Olympians themselves must become emboldened while the world is watching, they argue, and give Russians critical support.

"If some A-list Hollywood actor wants to come to Sochi right now and come out, I tip my hat. But I think this is about the athletes," says Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 2008 "Milk," about the life and death of gay activist Harvey Milk.

"The light shines bright on these Olympics. ... If ever there was a time to come out, as an athlete, as a coach, as a member of a team, it's right now," Black says. "Even though it's brave, even though it isn't what they're there for, I call on them to speak their truth openly."

Media and branding expert Howard Bragman, a longtime gay advocate, agrees.

"Hollywood gets this is the civil rights issue of our time. They're some of the people who helped make it" that way, says Bragman, vice chairman of But this is a time, he says, for the sports world to step up.


AND, IN FACT, gay Australian Olympian Belle Brockhoff tweeted thanks to Rihanna before competing in snowboardcross on Sunday. "OMG NO WAY!" said a tweet on Brockhoff's verified account. "Whoah. Thank you @rihanna for standing up for #P6 and equality at the Olympics!"

After her race, though, Brockhoff said she would "definitely be voicing my opinion" -- only not quite yet. "If I didn't get a medal, no one is going to really care. I'll still say the things I want to say and if people want to listen, they'll listen," she said. "Social media, I'm all over that."

The Sochi Games have yet to yield a moment as dramatic as the one created in the United States last week when Missouri All-American Michael Sam came out. The announcement preceded the NFL draft that could make him the first openly gay player in the league.

Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, who married partner Isabel Stolz last year, did not bring up Russia's anti-gay laws after winning the silver medal last week in ski jumping. She said before winning the medal that protests weren't worth it because "no one cares."

"We think athlete voices are still powerful in this debate," says Andre Banks, executive director of AllOut, which has been protesting Russia's gay oppression for two years. "But at the end of the day, it's up to the athlete to find the moment to make that expression."

AllOut's Principle 6 campaign refers to the sixth of seven "fundamental principles" listed in the International Olympic Committee's charter, the one banning discrimination. The campaign received a high-profile shout-out from Rihanna, with a photo of the singer wearing a P6 logo hat posted on Instagram.

Indeed, gay advocates are not giving up on the value of celebrity support for the Russian cause.

"The use of celebrity has been critical to drive attention to the issue," says Ty Cobb, the Human Rights Campaign's director of global engagement. "It's undeniable that celebrities are cultural change agents, and that straight allies like Matt Damon are coming out to support (gay) Russians is quite instrumental."

Damon and other celebrities are donning T-shirts emblazoned, in Russian, "Love Conquers Hate" and posting selfies online as part of HRC's fundraising for a Russian support fund. The first donation was $100,000, with a second expected soon, Cobb said.

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