For Yelena Goltsman, nothing short of an Olympic boycott is the proper response to Russia’s new anti-gay “propaganda” law.
As a Jewish lesbian from the former Soviet Union, Goltsman is accustomed to being defined by other people. But the Russian policy effectively criminalizing homosexuality has the New York City-based activist more riled up than ever.
“I am just appalled by this law,” Goltsman told The Times of Israel. “The comparison to Nazi Germany immediately comes to mind when I think about how this law and other recent Russian laws are stripping people of human rights. There is so much anti-gay violence that is not being prosecuted in Russia, and these laws enable it.”
Goltsman is founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, an outreach group for gay Russian-speakers. Her organization began protesting Russia’s anti-gay policies 17 months ago, when St. Petersburg became the fourth Russian city to pass anti-gay legislation.
The new, national law comes just half a year before Russia is set to hold the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the country’s largest resort city. The games’ convergence with Russia’s draconian anti-gay measures has galvanized some activists to call for a boycott, while others want the games moved to Canada, which successfully hosted the Olympics in 2010.
“We want the Olympics moved, and we do not want to give Putin and his cronies this showcase for their country, when it is moving backwards,” Goltsman said.
The anti-gay propaganda law — handily passed in Russia’s parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin — bans public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere in the vicinity of children. Large fines, prison sentences and deportation are among the penalties for breaking the law — even for foreign tourists.
In July, RUSA LGBT helped organize a widely publicized “Russian Vodka Dump” outside Russia’s New York City consular office, one of many such “dumps” held around the US. Goltsman also recruited 150 Russian activists to march in the city’s June 30 Pride parade in protest of Russia’s actions.
“Silence is death,” Goltsman said of the need for human rights groups to mobilize. “We have to be more direct in expressing our outrage at what is happening.”
Goltsman points out that Russia’s crackdown on gays is part of a larger government-led assault on freedom of expression and civil society. Abetted by the Russian Orthodox Church, nationalist conservative politicians have ignored — and, some argue, incited — violence against both gays and Jews.
In addition to public expressions of outrage, Jewish activists are employing other strategies to protest Russia’s laws. For gay rights activist and author Jay Michaelson, organizing behind the scenes is equally crucial.
As vice president of social justice for the Arcus Foundation, Michaelson helps distribute grants “to advance LGBT equality” around the world. To respond to the Olympic controversy, he has focused on connecting activists to each other for maximum effect.
“The first thing we’re trying to do is limit the application of these laws in Russia,” Michaelson said. “The regime has a lot of latitude here. We are also trying to prevent a domino effect in countries like Ukraine and Moldova, which are also considering anti-gay laws.”
‘Russia today is not Germany in 1936’
On Thursday, police officials in Armenia withdrew a proposed law similar to Russia’s against “non-traditional sexual relationships.” Analysts credit pressure from Western governments and human rights groups on Russia for prompting Armenian officials to reconsider the anti-gay proposal.
Unfortunately for gay-rights activists, governments considering “banning” homosexuality are usually buttressed by homophobic populations, said Michaelson.
“Three-quarters of Russians support the anti-gay propaganda law,” Michaelson said. “Think about where the United States was 50 years ago with sexual diversity. We have a lot of long, hard work to reach out to the Russian people.”
Though concerned about the Olympics, Michaelson noted that gay Olympians’ safety fears pale in comparison to those of gays and lesbians living in Russia. He is more focused on using the Olympics to spotlight Russian intolerance than on taking the games out of Russia, the stance of — for instance — gay British Jewish actor and writer Stephen Fry.
With the same Russian nationalist gangs assaulting both gays and Jews, Michaelson said there is “actual common cause” for activists to unite against the hate wave sweeping Russia. Even Olympics corporate sponsors are concerned the Sochi games will be “the most morally suspect Olympics since those of 1936 in Berlin,” he said.
During those Olympics, the world ignored rampant persecution of Jews codified in 1935’s Nuremberg Race Laws. Jews were removed from every facet of society and fled the country in droves, but the Olympics gave Germany a whitewashed spotlight for its new “Thousand-Year Reich.”
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has entered the fray against Russia’s anti-gay laws — including by voicing parallels between Germany almost eight decades ago and Russia today.
“The Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott,” wrote gay Jewish Broadway icon Harvey Fierstein in a New York Times editorial.
“In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany,” Fierstein wrote. “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.”
Though Russia’s anti-gay forces have passed local and national legislation in recent years, comparisons with Nazi genocidal policies should be tempered, said some activists.
“Russia today is not Germany in 1936. However, we should act today as we wish more had acted in 1936,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman told the Times.
‘We want the Olympics moved, and we do not want to give Putin and his cronies this showcase’
“We should raise our voices,” Foxman said. “Show solidarity. Defy legislated bigotry. World leaders should follow President Obama’s example of clearly saying that Russia’s anti-gay laws violate basic morality.”
Russian Jewish activists – both gay and straight – have taken prominent stances against the new laws. Some activists experienced oppression firsthand during decades of Soviet policy directed against the Jewish community.
“The people in power in Russia haven’t cared about legitimacy in a long time, if they ever did,” wrote Masha Gessen in a recent op-ed.
As a Jewish lesbian, Moscow-born Gessen writes extensively on Russian affairs, including in her new book, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
“The laws passed over the past year — restricting public gatherings, introducing the concept of ‘foreign agents,’ broadening the definition of espionage and banning so-called propaganda of homosexuality — prove the point: Each one has dealt a blow to the Russian regime’s legitimacy on the world stage,” Gessen wrote.
For Goltsman, the anti-gay propaganda laws are a “double whammy” for progress. Not only do the laws tacitly legitimize violence against gays, she says, they also ban the kind of education needed to reverse homophobia in Russia.
“The majority of Russians are homophobic, and people will now be stuck in this mentality,” Goltsman said. “What helps is educating people, and this law kind of cuts that at the knees. I don’t think any human being can see this as tolerable. It’s scary to be gay in Russia right now.”