Olympics Row Reveals White Supremacist Pagan Foothold

This week The New York Times reported that the uniforms of this year’s Norwegian Olympic Alpine ski team have caused a stir among those concerned about neonazi co-optation of Viking symbols. The Viking-themed uniforms include the runic Tyr symbol, used chiefly in a linguistic context but which also refers to an ancient Norse god of war. It’s also become a symbol used by the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neonazi organization founded in Sweden in 1997, with additional official chapters in Finland and Norway, and substantial support in Denmark and Iceland. “One of the group’s slogans, ‘Enough is enough,’” writes Richard Martyn-Hemphill for the Times, “even showed up on a drum in last summer’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.”

The Viking-themed uniforms of this year’s Norwegian Olympic Alpine ski team include the runic Tyr symbol.

The controversy over the uniforms has special importance in a country that makes knitting patterns available each Olympic cycle, allowing everyday Norwegians to knit and wear their own team sweaters with pride. But following the co-optation of the rune by the Nordic Resistance Movement, several retailers have declined to carry the pattern, and many Norwegian Olympic athletes will be wearing an alternate official design to PyeongChang. Others in Norway see this response as abandoning cultural heritage to bigots. As Hilde Midthjell, chief executive of sweater manufacturer Dale of Norway, told the Times, “‘Neo-Nazis have marched with Norwegian flags. That does not mean we stop using that, does it?’” In accordance with this stance, Dale of Norway will continue to carry the runic sweater design.

From a cursory glance, the decision to drop the Tyr-emblazoned uniforms may seem excessive given the seeming obscurity of the group appropriating the symbol. But the Nordic Resistance Movement—which has attacked LGBTQ events, committed violence against anti-fascist protesters, bombed refugee centers, and was subsequently banned in Finland late last year—is part of a larger global landscape of White supremacist groups that have adopted ancient Nordic religious iconography and beliefs as part of their crusade for hate.

The Nordic Resistance Movement is a neonazi group established in Sweden and Norway.

As I explore at length in the Winter 2018 issue of The Public Eye, White supremacists are increasingly embracing Odinism, a revival of ancient Norse paganism that centers around the god Odin. These Odinists reject Christianity as a weak, effeminate religion originating from a Jewish tradition they despise, favoring instead a hypermasculine fantasy of Viking religion they see as noble and authentically White. In the piece, I argued:

Many of those drawn to Odinism seem to fit the popular image of the angry, disaffected White men who voted for Trump: lacking in status, searching for a sense of identity and community, and insistent that White people are under attack as a group. In the face of economic despair and entitled, hypermasculine White rage, embracing a religion that seems to be all about White male victory can be appealing.

Such rage is fueling Odinist movements across North America and Western and Northern Europe, with goals ranging from expelling immigrants and refugees of color en masse to igniting racial holy wars and taking up arms against the state. In this light, concern over a rune on an Olympic team’s uniform takes on more gravity.

The growing White supremacist Odinist movement should be continually monitored as everyday enthusiasts of Nordic history and culture (including those who want to take back the Tyr rune from the Nordic Resistance Movement), as well as anti-racist practitioners of Norse paganism, push back against the appropriation of their heritage and beliefs.


“Scrambling to Make Sense of Russia” – PRA’s Jay Michaelson on NPR

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PRA’s Jay Michaelson, author of the groundbreaking report Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights, joins local NPR outlet WNPR News to discuss how anti-LGBTQ laws aren’t limited to Russia, they’re cropping up around the world.

Michaelson also discusses the current status of pro- and anti-LGBTQ laws around the U.S., and NFL hopeful Michael Sam coming out of the closet.

Listen to the audio of the interview here. Michaelson comes in at roughly 2:50.

wnpr news“While visitors watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, enjoy spectacular feats of athletic ability from the world’s most accomplished athletes, those in Russia’s LGBT community anticipate laws that punish Russians for even suggesting that it’s okay to be gay, let alone live openly as a gay adult.

But, the conversation isn’t just about Russia, as you’ll hear. Russia’s anti-gay laws are just the leading edge of a bunch of similar laws in other countries, all of them meant to simultaneously quiet the call for gay rights and affirm for that country that we are not the decadent West.” 

Considering #SochiProblems Beyond Russia

2014 sochi logo

The 22nd Winter Olympic Games kick off this week in Sochi, Russia, amid pomp, circumstance, controversy, and concern. On Twitter, journalists are popularizing the “#SochiProblems” hashtag, documenting shoddy and ill-prepared accommodations. Yet the bigger concerns have more to do with human rights than broken doorknobs.

Since the passage of the infamous “Anti-Gay Propaganda” bill in June of last year, international human rights advocates have been horrified by a massive surge in attacks on Russia’s LGBTQ community. Blogs, newspapers, and other media sources—both in mainstream and LGBTQ outlets—have circulated images of bloodied protesters, videos documenting the torture of young gay men, and stories of people and families living in fear for their lives. The situation is assuredly dire, and activists on the ground anticipate that things will only get worse once the Games are over and the international spotlight has faded.

But with an anticipated television audience of 3 billion viewers (and at a cost of over $50 billion), the games go on. More than 2,800 athletes from 87 different countries have tirelessly trained in anticipation of what will—for most—be the pinnacle of their athletic careers. As usual, American athletes are expected to dominate the podium, but the stories that most captivate the world frequently come from the perpetual underdogs—the ones with no name recognition, no corporate sponsors, and almost no chance of winning.

Like the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, competitors from countries in traditionally warmer climates are rare anomalies at the Winter Olympics, and tend to garner a sort of curious fascination from journalists and spectators. In 2014, five such “underdog” athletes hail from Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Togo, and Zimbabwe)—a continent that has yet to claim a single medal in the entire history of the Winter Olympic Games.

Africa, however, deserves more attention than a mere puff piece about its underdog Olympians. 38 African countries currently have laws that criminalize homosexuality, and the atmosphere for LGBTQ people in many countries is growing worse.

Such was not always the case: Legal restrictions on same-sex relationships are primarily a product of European colonial rule, prior to which homosexuality was widely documented as having been normalized and accepted. In recent years, however, a wave of neo-colonial influence, led by right-wing U.S. evangelicals, has led to a resurgence of anti-homosexuality legislation and public sentiment.

Certainly, many human rights groups, queer activists, and social justice organizers have recognized and begun to challenge the exportation of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and ideology. But our collective efforts—well-intentioned as they may be—have also included some less effective, even harmful models. Like many mainstream Western gay and lesbian movements, the evolving face of the international LGBTQ justice movement has struggled to figure out what it means to approach this work with an intersectional analysis and ethos, and how to responsibly and accountably move toward a vision of collective liberation that doesn’t exclude anyone—a vision that understands the indelible link between LGBTQ justice and racial justice, economic justice, disability justice, etc.

Anti-LGBTQ activity in Russia is a distinct, albeit interrelated trend, providing both a model for new legislation and a useful distraction for African governments pursuing similar agendas. Within months of the Duma’s near-unanimous approval of the Anti-Gay Propaganda law, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, signed a new law that not only prescribes prison sentences of up to 14 years for openly LGBTQ people, but also bans same-sex marriage, intimate relationships with a member of the same sex, and gay organizations. Uganda’s Parliament passed its own anti-homosexuality law, formerly known as the “kill the gays” bill, which is awaiting President Museveni’s signature. Similar measures are currently in the works in Liberia, and rapidly gaining momentum.

Unfortunately, these regressive moves have gone largely unnoticed, thanks to the enormous protective shadow of Mother Russia—and thanks to the preferential treatment of Western activists who notoriously favor other Westerners within the confines of restrictive and destructive “issue silos.” Meanwhile, in the U.S. and around the world, the suffering of indigenous people, incarcerated people, undocumented people, transgender people, poor people, homeless and underhoused people, people with disabilities, and people of color continues to go unnoticed. This contrast is felt in mainstream gay and lesbian movements that perceive marriage equality as an end goal, in the current neglect of LGBTQ rights abuses in Africa and other parts of the Global South, in every host city for the Olympic Games (sites of perennial contention that notoriously displace local communities, exploit and drain public resources, and suppress marginalized voices), and in the lived experiences of individuals who dare to claim more than one oppressed identity.

The privileging of some above others fractures our community as a whole, and as long as we are divided, the Right will continue winning. So in the coming weeks, as the world’s attention is captivated by displays of strength, agility, speed, and athleticism, let’s not forget that for every athlete that mounts the podium, there’s an underdog with a story to tell, too. For every glitzy, star-studded media campaign launched by well-financed LGBTQ organizations, there’s a grassroots group struggling to pay its bills. For every story about Russia, there’s a less-publicized campaign to make life worse for folks in Uganda, Cameroon, Jamaica, and elsewhere. In the end, regardless of who wins gold, we all lose when injustice endures.

While Sochi Olympics Spark Global Outrage Over Anti-LGBTQ Laws, Local Groups Fight for Real Change


photo credit: http://www.towleroad.com/2013/08/la-councilmembers-protest-russian-sister-city-with-rainbow-flag.html

photo credit: http://www.towleroad.com/2013/08/la-councilmembers-protest-russian-sister-city-with-rainbow-flag.html

Russia’s recent surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation has prompted responses from human rights defenders around the globe. The upcoming Winter Olympics (set to be hosted in Sochi, Russia) has become a significant platform from which to demonstrate and encourage resistance, and activists have employed a wide variety of tactics to apply pressure and demand change.

The outrage resulting from Russia’s “anti-propaganda” law was initially channeled into a call for athletes to boycott the event (this approach was largely abandoned when folks eventually thought to consult with Russian LGBTQ activists who were unsupportive of the tactic). Other targets of protest have included the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, as well as Stolichnaya (a popular Russian vodka).

As the games draw near, additional responses have emerged. FCKH8.com is producing a Russian language coloring book entitled, “Misha & His Moms Go to the Olympics,” set to be distributed widely to children in Sochi and Moscow. All Out and Athlete Ally have designed a strategy for athletes to display their dissent without risking punishment. The Human Rights Campaign is mass-producing t-shirts that read “Love Conquers Hate” in Russian.

Over the course of the last few decades, many cities around the world have developed ties with “sister cities” in Russia as a means of cultural exchange and economic advancement. These connections have also become a site of protest as city officials have responded to Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws with condemnatory proclamations, by promoting asylum opportunities for LGBTQ Russians, or by simply severing ties completely. In one unique case, residents of Portland, Maine recently hosted LGBTQ activists from their city’s Russian counterpart, Archangel, as a means of identifying ways in which they can be better allies to one another.

The question remains, however, what will happen after the games? Who will keep watching after the athletes, spectators, sports broadcasters, and journalists have all gone home? Once Sochi is out of the spotlight, will we remember to be outraged?

While attention spans may dwindle elsewhere in the world, I have complete faith that folks in Springfield, MA will continue in their diligent watchfulness and relentless resistance.

Anti-LGBTQ crusader Scott Lively, who is currently being charged for “crimes against humanity” in Springfield’s Federal Court, is infamous for his role in creating the “Kill the Gays” Bill in Uganda. Unfortunately, his influence isn’t limited to Africa—just last month he was in Moscow, and he has longstanding ties in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, and Belarus. His rampant homophobia is echoing far and wide, but Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and a brave cadre of human rights defenders in Western Mass are hard at work, seeking to hold Lively accountable for the damage he’s done and to take responsibility for the role that their neighbors and community members play in the ongoing globalization of U.S.-born culture wars.

The Stop the Hate & Homophobia Coalition emerged in the Fall of 2010 when members of ARISE, a Springfield-based social justice organization, learned that their neighbor, Scott Lively, was a major propagator of anti-LGBTQ violence. Teaming up with Out Now, a local LGBTQ youth organization, and other concerned members of the community, the group began meeting regularly and strategizing ways to effectively “clip the wings” of their jet-setting neighbor. Their efforts have ranged from hosting vigils outside of the coffee shop run by Lively’s local ministry to publishing advertisements in the local newspaper exposing the true nature of Lively’s work, and through the help of Pam Spees, CCR’s lead lawyer on the SMUG vs. Lively case, the Coalition has established relationships with LGBTQ activists in Uganda with whom they’re able to consult and collaborate.

As Spees points out, “It is essential that those of us in the U.S. own the problem as stemming from the United States, and take the lead in this fight against U.S. extremists, in solidarity with those most affected, and not paternalistically. We can’t expect people abroad, who are being brutally targeted, to trace these guys all the way back to their home communities in the States. We are the ones to stem that tide.”

Proclamations, petitions, boycotts, and social justice swag may have their place, but nothing will ever compare to the on-the-ground work of grassroots, person-to-person movement building in our own communities. After all, it’s only when we’re in relationship with one another that we become able to see the deeper connections between our lives, our families, our communities, and our movements.