As the Olympics begin in Sochi today, gay rights activists around the world are protesting Russia’s new laws on homosexuality. Some of those activists will be in uniform: A company in New York is printing up a set of protest tracksuits.
"Every country has their official tracksuit for the Olympics," says Jesse Finkelstein, founder of Print All Over Me, the design company behind the new collection of clothing. "We wondered what a queer tracksuit would look like."
Eighteen designers submitted prints for the tracksuits, which will be sold to support the Russian LGBT Network and on display tonight at the Louis B. James Gallery in Manhattan."They range from liberal comments on LGBT issues—like Scott Hug’s rainbow design with a black hammer and sickle covering the chest—to prints that are more abstract," Finkelstein explains.
Each design is meant to serve as a reminder of what’s going on in Russia. Last year, the government passed a law banning "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" to anyone under 18, meaning that groups that give support to LGBT youth are now illegal. The law is written so broadly that some say anyone who talks about gay rights in public is now at risk. "The Olympic Games are drawing attention to the systematic and legalized oppression that the Russian government has legislated for LGBT people, and we thought it would be a good opportunity for us to do our part," Finkelstein says.
Print All Over Me, a startup that launched late last year, helps both designers and non-designers print on a series of blank objects, from pillows and bags to clothing. After someone sends in a design, the company prints the fabric and sews up whatever the customer needs. In this case, though, the company hand-selected a group of designers, all known for queer art, to submit designs for the project.
Ironically, the official Sochi uniform, featuring a rainbow pattern on the jacket and gloves, wouldn’t necessarily look out of place in the lineup that will be shown at the gallery tonight. "The games exist as a shared acknowledgment of our common humanity," Finkelstein says. "It's fitting that the rainbow should feature as part of the uniform, but when paired with Russia's homophobic legislation this symbol becomes insidious—a symbol that our shared humanity resides with the dehumanization of a given minority."
Perhaps one of the project's tracksuits will actually end up at the games, he says, though his main goal is to just to get people talking about the issue. Everything the startup does is about transparency, whether that's just making the design process itself more transparent, or looking at bigger social issues. "It just makes sense that in this effort to be more transparent we would work on projects that bring attention to organizations and individuals whose efforts for freedom are being obfuscated by their government," Finkelstein says.