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OP/ED: What Do We Do About Russia?

By now you know what is going on in Russia. You’ve heard about the Russian lesbian punk band persecuted for the crime of being “disrespectful,” and the Dutch filmmakers who have been arrested for looking into Russia’s new slew of anti-gay legislation. You have read the chilling translation of Russia’s Gay Propaganda Law. And you have seen the heartrending photographs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Russian citizens savagely beaten for having the temerity to live honestly and openly. You know what a terrifying and dangerous time this is for the LGBT community of Russia, and you want to help.

But how can we help our Russian siblings? The Russian Federation is vast and distant, and we—America’s LGBT community—lack the means to mount any kind of rescue operation. Some, like national treasure Harvey Fierstein, point to the specter of the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936 and would have us boycott the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Others, such as Co-Founder Cyd Zeigler have been arguing passionately that “You don't win in sports by walking away; you win by competing.”

I—after much consideration—have come down firmly against boycotting the Olympics, though not because “Telling athletes they cannot live out their dreams because of Russia's LGBT rights issues would be a black eye” on America, and certainly not “because Russian LGBT rights have nothing to do with the athletes who have put in years of sacrifice and hard work.” As fond as I am of Olympians, their 'dreams' aren’t worth a hill of beans when weighed against the lives and safety of an entire nation’s worth of LGBT individuals. And telling those same LGBT individuals their rights “have nothing to do” with some athletes’ “hard work and sacrifice” is a statement of such stultifying myopia and privilege that I’m surprised someone hasn’t snatched away Zeigler’s gay card already.

I’m against boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics because it is ultimately a toothless response to what is perhaps the most shocking and blatant assault on human rights by a modern nation in my lifetime, and because the act of boycotting denies us a platform to comment on that assault in an international forum. We have boycotted Russian-held Olympic Games before, and Zeigler was on to something when he pointed out that it was an utter failure. And Fierstein got it wrong when he drew a parallel between the 1936 Olympics and the upcoming event in Sochi, saying, "Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance."

The difference is that Hitler was seeking international legitimacy for both his fascist ideology and for his increasingly totalitarian rule over Germany. Putin—both through his seat on the U.N. Security Council and his stranglehold on Eastern Europe’s gas supply—has all the legitimacy he could want. What he needs are victories to wave before the Russian people to assure them that—despite their lost empire and spiraling demographic numbers—they are still a great people. Every Russian victory in the Olympics buttresses Putin’s deceptively precarious tzardom, and those victories will only be easier to bring home if the United States and the other Western Powers decided to sit this one out, whereas every medal bestowed upon the neck of an LGBT or American athlete is an opportunity to stand before the world and decry the inhumane treatment of gays and lesbians living in Russia.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a policy of cheering real hard for America and hoping that everything turns out for the best. This is, as I have said, the most shocking and blatant assault on human rights by a modern nation in my lifetime, and it deserves a response by America and its LGBT community that rises to that standard. But if we don’t boycott the Olympics, what do we do?

1. We Boycott Russian Vodka.
I once read somewhere that Russia isn’t really a democracy so much as it is an alliance of gangs, cartels and billionaire industrialists. If we want Putin to reverse his policies toward our queer siblings living within his borders, we have to show him and his allies that demonizing the LGBT community doesn’t pay. We can start by refusing to order Russian Vodka—essentially Russian Standard and Stolichnaya—and politely, repeatedly, relentlessly insist that the establishments we frequent refuse to carry or serve Russian vodka. Then have a sit-down talk with your local club promoters, DJs, drag queens and other entertainers to insist that Russian brands not be served in the venues in which they perform. And finally, we must demand that any LGBT nonprofits and media organizations end any relationships they might have with Russian brands (and yes, I am looking directly at you, Queerty). Sure we import other stuff, but Russian vodka is the most visible product to make it to American shelves, and thus it is a great place to start.

2. We Must Ask the Olympians to Speak Out on Behalf of LGBT Russians.
America hasn’t selected its Olympic athletes yet, and as far as I can tell, the selections won’t be finalized until the end of 2013 and early January 2014, but we already have a good idea of who some of them might be. Write to any former Olympian or any Olympic hopeful living in your state. Tell them about the atrocities being visited upon Russia’s LGBT community, send them rainbow ribbons to wear, begging them to speak out if they are given the chance.
3. Offer Russian LGBT People Asylum in the United States. I’m sure that some number of LGBT Russians already qualify for sanctuary in the United States due to the unfathomably hostile environment they are living in. But I am suggesting that a member of the U.S. Congress stand up before her colleagues and introduce a bill extending asylum to every single member of Russia’s LGBT community—and Uganda’s while we are at it—and that congressperson should be Senator Tammy Baldwin. Whether she knows it or not, and whether she wants it or not, Tammy Baldwin is more than just the junior senator from the great state of Wisconsin—she is the representative of every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender person in this country by dint of who she is—the first out homosexual to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. And because of that seat, she is arguably the most powerful member of the LGBT community on the planet. Write to her and her LGBT counterparts in the House of Representatives and implore them to speak out on the Senate floor. Beg them to offer up legislation in defense of our persecuted siblings around the world.

The Honorable Tammy Baldwin
United States Senate
717 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4906

We in the LGBT community aren’t a tribe in the traditional sense. We aren’t begotten mother to daughter, father to son. We don’t share in a bloodline or a common ancestry. But we are a community built of interpersonal relationships—lover to lover, friend to friend—spread out across the globe. We don’t necessarily share a language or a common faith, but we are a product of similar oppressions and inheritors of a common legacy.

We are a culture—a people—and no matter how many states we can marry in, or how honorably we serve in the military, we will never be truly safe nor free as long as around the world our people are being deprived of their lives, their liberties and their very humanity. As long as our siblings in places like Russia and Uganda are being tortured and beaten, there are always going to be people here in America who remember fondly a time when the “faggots and queers” knew their place, and they will profit either politically or financially by sharing that vision with others.

We all see the road Russia is marching down. We know where that path leads. It doesn’t stop with banning “gay propaganda”—that’s just a fancy way of saying LGBT individuals can’t speak out in their own defense. Once it is illegal for you to defend yourself, they control your image and they can say whatever they like about you, do whatever they want to you, take whatever they please from you, even your life. And if that happens and we didn’t do anything to stop it except not go to some sporting event, we will all bear that shame for the rest of our lives.

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  1. santha posted on 07/24/2013 11:55 PM
    AMERICANS... you give yourself too much credit at being able to "do something" about anything. I understand Putin is a huge problem but so are YOU and your "token" black puppet president has done nothing about anything relevant either for your country and much damage to many other nations. When you point a finger out at someone you have four fingers pointing back at you. Go fix your own problems first before trying to "fix" the problems of the "other". America is the biggest terrorist the world has experienced.
    1. Tyler posted on 07/25/2013 03:19 AM
      @santha Santha, your statement is irrelevant to the topic. We are sticking up for our fellow gay brothers and sisters. America was just one marriage equality on a federal level. That is a HUGE step forward and is very relevant to this subject. Your statement makes it look like you really don't care about the gay Russian community. You're simply here to pick a fight. Do you not agree that something needs to be done, or do you want to be one of those people that looks the other way because it doesn't really affect you? We Americans could easily turn our heads away and say, "hey, it's not OUR problem." But what kind of humans would we be then? You imply that every American is a supporter of Obama, again you are WRONG in that assumption. Think before you start arguing for argument's sake. This is about the safety and freedom of the LGBT community worldwide and we will always reach out and help as much as we can. go back under your rock.
  2. Stefan posted on 07/25/2013 09:15 AM
    It's nice that you care and want to show solidarity, but the means you suggest are not going to help the Russian LGBT community at all.

    (1) All alcohol exports (of which vodka is only a small share, and for which the U.S. is but one trading partner) are about a half billion dollars annually (about one percent of all export revenue, or 0.3 percent of Russian GDP). A boycott will be meaningless as a policy tool. Domestic alcohol excise tax revenue is about six times that figure, and most alcohol consumed in Russia is made by companies like Anheuser-InBev, SABMiller, and Heineken. Putin and the owner of Stoli (unless it becomes state owned) are enemies, meaning that buying Stoli might actually promote Putin's political adversaries (a good thing).

    (2) Maybe just boycott all Russian consumer products. Unfortunately, these are also a very small share of the Russian economy.

    (3) The biggest and most important Russian exports are oil and natural gas, coal, and various metals. Encouraging the U.S. to curb its petroleum dependency, and encouraging the LGBT community and our allies to lead this effort, would have a much greater economic impact.

    (4) So the economic approach is just as toothless as the Olympic approach. And even if successful, it would lead to other unintended consequences. When economies decline--generally speaking--poverty increases, unemployment rises, and people are left to cling to violence and religion and addiction. There's a reason that Russia since World War II has adopted very conservative social policies--because it's an effective distraction, and allows scapegoating. People want something or someone to blame, and it's hard to beat up corporate capitalism. It's easy to beat up sexual minorities.

    (5) Olympic athletes who speak out, even with a rainbow flag, could be risking imprisonment. And the UN has shown little interest in pressuring Russia about its laws, perhaps because the law--on its face--is among the less pernicious you'll find internationally. No one is put to death, and no one is put in jail for being gay or engaging in "gay sex". Obviously the law is awful and limits political speech, but the U.S. until 2003 (!!!) allowed laws that criminalized sodomy. And we still allow many, many states to discriminate on the basis of orientation. In the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002, athletes competed under laws that still allowed imprisonment based on gay sexual activity, did not allow gay people to marry or openly serve in the military, and offered no real protections against orientation discrimination. Yes, our political speech was not persecuted, but we were well behind the progress in other countries at that point. Encouraging U.S. athletes to potentially commit a crime while overseas seems both unwise and a little hypocritical. But Russia would be stupid to arrest anyone for this, especially if there are plenty of athletes and media outlets showing support, so maybe this is the best option.

    (6) Granting people asylum seems promising, and members of the LGBT community in Russia might even meet the three part test for having asylum granted (persecution as part of a "social group"). But persecution is "harm or suffering inflicted upon an individual in order to punish the individual for possessing a belief or characteristic" whereas the propaganda law is specifically about speech acts (again, on its face). It almost seems designed to control without persecuting, legally at least. Moreover, asylum is a quota system, and I'd rather those spots go first to people in our community who fear death or physical harm (almost every African nation and much of the Middle East would be included here). And, lastly, I think it's important to have people in Russia who do represent the LGBT community and work for progress. Imagine if Russia's version of Harvey Milk seeks asylum elsewhere.

    So, what can we do? I'd suggest finding progressive LGBT organizations that risk fines or imprisonment for their members, and supporting them financially. Help them pay for legal representation, make the cases visible internationally through social media, etc. Maybe research about which companies in Russia donate to progressive political candidates (if they still exist) and support their products. And, of course, continuing to work on our own domestic policies--securing full LGBT equality nationally, and making us an unquestioned protected class--would help us serve as a more effective example.
  3. Ivan Savvine posted on 07/25/2013 08:08 PM
    I'm not sure what your argument about the expansion of asylum protections for LGBTs is about; the asylum law is already there and worsening country of origin conditions do make it easier for the applicants to obtain asylum in the United States (but only once they are here); we still, however, have a huge problem of immigration fraud here in the U.S. when it comes to asylum applications, especially LGBT asylum applications; one thing that would help is allowing gays and lesbians to ask for a refugee status (NB: it is different from 'asylum', procedurally) in a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. That used to be allowed to the Soviet Jews and certain selected dissidents, but I don't think this procedure remains in place nor do I think that it was ever available to LGBTs. I've been talking to one guy from Moscow who is gay and HIV+ and he is desperate to get out, but his request for a visa to the U.S. was denied. I think this is really the key issue here - getting them out first and also continuing pressure on the Russian gov through major political and financial institutions.
  4. RexTIII posted on 07/28/2013 09:22 AM
    The growing wave of violence in Russia and several other Neighboring Countries, share the same essential 'Eastern Orthodox' brand of Christianity. Putin is a face, but he is not the movement, rising out of corruption and power. Much like everywhere else in the world, religious zealots and failing governments align with a common enemy, and the LGBT population the target. The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is literally designing this war on LGBT Citizens, effectively rolling out legislative action, with Putin's alignment a given. The heart of this, much as it is everywhere to whatever degree it still is allowed to exist - the Church. The background of corruption - across all of Russia and many of their neighbors (with Eastern Orthodox powers, much the same) is breeding ground for Thugs and Enforcers and they are thriving.

    Putin is more than happy to take the 'hit' up front as he is, he could really care less about who it pisses off, least of all who may be harmed within his own country. Until the underlying 'creators' of this horrific violent behavior is clearly brought to the surface, nothing will curb the growing movement. After the years of poor little Orthodoxie Church Groups living under Communist oppressors - finally free again - at last, the religious world doesn't much want to examine the New And Renewed version(s).

    Obviously, giving up is not an option. But until we start seeing serious efforts from Religious Leaders who do give a shit about people, the extremist behaviors shall continue this pursuit. This is 'their time' - in balance, they believe they are going to undo the damage done in the liberal worlds where freedom means something, something they have not a clue about as a 'reality.'

    Putin as the Lone Bad Wolf - is a losing proposition. He's guilty, but he's far from alone. He's just signing the laws and mouthing when necessary.
  5. Brett Zayshley posted on 08/11/2013 08:35 AM
    Don't just stop at alcohol, boycot other major exports like oil natural gas, timber, and potash.
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