02/06/2014 08:28 EST | Updated 04/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Toronto groups want Olympics to spur gay rights discussion

Toronto's gay community is planning a number of rallies Thursday to speak out against Russia's anti-gay policies ahead of the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Also set to open in Toronto on Thursday is a PridehouseTO, a winter viewing lounge set up at Ryerson University during the Games. PridehouseTO is billed as a gay-friendly environment where people can not only come to watch the events, but to also discuss gay rights issues.

A Russian law signed in July by President Vladimir Putin, outlaws pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. Critics say it is so restrictive and vague that it deters almost any public expression of support for gay rights. The law has spurred worldwide protests and there's a protest planned for Thursday at the Russian consulate.

PridehouseTO will be located at Gould and Victoria streets, in between Toronto's gay village and the tourist hub of Yonge and Dundas streets.

Jill Holroyd is the mother of a 20-year-old who identifies as gender queer, a catch-all category for those who don't view themselves as either men or women. She plans to volunteer at PridehouseTO and hopes the Games will continue to spur the discussion about gay rights.

"I think what I can do as the mom of a gay child is talk to people," she said. "One on one talk about the issues and answer questions," she said.

Blake Skjellerup is an openly gay speed skater who is flying to Toronto so he can speak at the opening of the viewing lounge on Thursday.

"[Gay people in Russia] are suffering massive forms of discrimination on a daily basis and violence is a very real threat," he said.

Skjellerup described the discussions he hopes will take place at PridehouseTO as "a form of education."

"It's a way of enlightening people to the plight of LGBT people in sport and highlighting the situation in Russia," he said.

Ryan Tollofson of PridehouseTO said he also believes the venue will show that a sporting event like the Olympics can spur debate and show support for gay rights worldwide.

"What's happening in Russia is quite alarming and we just want to stand in solidarity with our Russian friends and to make sure that people know that we believe sports should be inclusive," he said.