11/28/2013 05:56 EST | Updated 01/28/2014 05:59 EST

Canadian Pride House: Toronto To Host Space For LGBT Athletes During Sochi 2014

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TORONTO - Toronto is carrying on an Olympic tradition that had its beginnings in Vancouver, but has been outlawed for the Winter Games in Sochi.

Both Vancouver, in 2010, and London, for the 2012 Summer Olympics, had a Pride House — a safe space and resource centre for gay athletes, coaches, volunteers and visitors. But Russia denied an application for a Pride House in Sochi, where the anti-gay climate is sure to be one of the stories of the Games.

And so Toronto will host its own Pride House in February, to celebrate the Games and shine a spotlight on Russia's anti-gay laws.

"We hope to use that as an opportunity to raise awareness for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) peoples human rights in Russia, to celebrate the Russian community, and the LGBT community in Russia in ways that we don't see happening now," said Barbara Besharat, of PrideHouse Toronto.

The 2014 Sochi Olympics may go down as the anti-gay Games, after Russia passed a law in June banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors." The law sparked calls to protest or boycott the Games.

"We need Pride House," said Konstantin Iablotckii, co-president of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. "It's already part of the Olympic movement, it's not a political demonstration, it's not a gay parade, it's just a safe peaceful place for celebrating equality in sport. That's all. It's a peaceful event. Why not have it in the Sochi event? The Olympics are all about friendship, unity and peace.

"It's the International Olympic Committee's mandate to protect sport from discrimination. . . which we do have in Russia."

Iablotckii, who was in Toronto to speak at a conference for LGBT sports groups, is part of a Russian coalition that is organizing the Open Games in Moscow in February. The Games, which Iablotckii said will be a platform for "equality in sports, culture and human rights," will run three days after the closing ceremonies, and will feature volleyball, badminton, basketball, ski racing, swimming, table tennis, and tennis, among others.

Iablotckii is hoping Canada supports the event that is being held in response to Russia's homophobic climate.

"We need your inclusion, please Canadians," he said. "You have lots of officials and government persons who are out, and they can make statements of support and be our ambassadors. We need you."

The timing of the Open Games, between the Olympics and Paralympics, was so there would still be media attention focused on Sochi.

"If it would be after (the Paralympics), when mass media attention would be decreased, it would be more probable that things that would be crushed or banned or stopped by the government," Iablotckii said. "At least (between Games) we would be able to press the red button and to spread out over the whole world press releases that we are banned."

Toronto, meanwhile, will also have a Pride House during the 2015 Pan American Games.

"We are working together so that the Pan Am and Parapan American Games in 2015 are the most LGBT inclusive Games in history," said Besharat.

Toronto's Sochi Pride House, she said, will feature Olympic viewing on large-screen TVs, along with activities such as pick-up hockey games. The location is still to be determined.

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