President Barack Obama’s decision to meet with Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists has drawn praise from local LGBT advocates.
Obama has announced that he will meet with human-rights activists, including gay-rights activists, during the G20 summit in Russia this week.
Reaction to Obama’s decision was positive from James Koury, who is gay, served as the City of Oneonta clerk for 21 years and publishes the LGBT-focused Diversity Rules Magazine.
Said Koury, “I think it’s fantastic.”
“I’m glad that Obama is going to meet with the group and hear what they have to say,” said Kathy Ballantine, a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays member of 15 years who has a lesbian daughter.
One of the motivations for this meeting is a law banning “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relations among minors that was enacted by Russia in June. The law bans discussing homosexuality or homosexual relationships anywhere children might hear, and imposes hefty fines on those who violate it. The law also applies to foreigners and media organizations.
While the Russian government says the purpose of the bill is to protect minors, critics say that it effectively bans being openly gay in Russia.
Amy Forster Rothbart, an assistant professor of political science at Hartwick College, said that while Russia does have a gay-rights movement, the law is reflective of the country’s culture.
“Russians as a whole are fairly socially conservative,” said Rothbart. “Putin’s measures are broadly popular.”
There have also been reports that violence against LGBT people has been on the rise since the law’s passage.
Said Ballantine, “I’ve read that there are marauding gangs that are targeting gays.”
In a television interview Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to allay concerns over the law, saying that gay people were not discriminated against in Russia.
Said Putin in the interview: ““We have absolutely normal relations and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here.”
“I think he’s crazy,” said Koury when asked about Putin’s claims. “He has beatings of transgender and gay people going on right under his nose and it’s being ignored.”
The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has helped to put Russia’s law into the international spotlight, and some have worried that gay athletes and fans might be subjected to it.
“I would love to see the Olympic Committee pull the Olympics,” said Koury, saying he hopes the location will be changed.
But Koury said he doesn’t favor the United States boycotting the Olympics on its own, because that would hurt U.S. athletes.
“If we boycott and nobody else does, we’d be just hurting our own Olympians,” he said.
Ballantine said she also hopes the venue is changed from Russia, but if it isn’t, she would favor a unilateral boycott for the safety of gay athletes.
“If the venue doesn’t get changed, I wish they would boycott this particular Olympics,” she said. Ballantine acknowledged that such a boycott would adversely affect U.S. Olympians.
Rothbart said such controversies will continue to be present at the Olympics, as the nominally nonpolitical games are held in countries with policies that others dislike. At the same time, she doesn’t see a boycott on the horizon for Sochi.
“I don’t think anyone is really prepared to boycott the Olympics over this,” she said.
For his part, Koury is in favor of exerting economic and international pressure on Russia to repeal the law.
“I would love to see the United States stop importing Russian products until they change this atrocity,” said Koury.
Koury said those wishing to support the LGBT community in Russia should stop buying Russian products, and supports a boycott of Russian vodka that has begun to pick up steam nationally.
“I think if anybody is buying Russian products now, they should stop,” he said.
Rothbart said activists outside of Russia face the difficult task of both showing solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community, while not giving Putin the opportunity to portray himself as someone defending Russian culture against the West.
“It’s a difficult line for gay rights activists in the U.S. to walk,” she said.
Rothbart said the vodka boycott is doing a good job bringing attention to the gay-rights situation in Russia, but that change itself will have to come from inside the country.
“I don’t think it (the boycott) has any potential to change the politics in any rapid way,” she said.
She also said that the crackdown on gay rights in Russia was emblematic of the overall political situation there.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “Russia has been moving in a more authoritarian direction in general.”