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 OutSports.com 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.

July 24, 2013 - by

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 OutSports.com 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.
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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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