Death Penalty
Damon Thibodeaux and his attorney, Steve Kaplan, and The Advocates’ Rosalyn Park and attorney John Getsinger

At one point, Damon Thibodeaux, on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, wanted to be executed instead of live in solitary confinement.

“I did not want to live like an animal in a cage for years on end, only to lose my case and then have the state kill me anyway,” Thibodeaux told the U.S Senate Judiciary Committee during its hearing on the practice of long-term solitary confinement. “I thought it would be better to end my life as soon as I could and avoid the agony of life in solitary.”

Eating rotten vegetables, enduring 100+ degree temperatures in the summer, and being put on display like an animal during prison tours was part of his life on death row, he told the committee.

“I saw men lose their minds, and some screamed at all hours of the night,” he recalled in the written portion of his testimony.

Thibodeaux lived for almost 15 years locked in an 8 by 10 cell 23 hours a day and in near-isolation at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary. Released in 2012, he was the 300th person nationwide and the 18th on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence. His legal team included attorneys from the Minnesota law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, a firm that volunteers with The Advocates for Human Rights.

The Advocates has submitted a shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, detailing how the death penalty in the U.S. violates basic human rights, including the right to an effective remedy for those exonerated from death row. The shadow report was prepared for the United Nations’ review of the U.S.’s human rights record in March.

On the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, The Advocates presented at the 2013 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in June in Madrid, Spain and coordinated the 2013 World Day Against the Death Penalty campaign.

Read more about Thibodeaux and his testimony in an article that appeared in the Star Tribune and in an interview on Huffington Post.

 

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies

While viewers across the United States watched the Olympic closing ceremonies, Jason Collins became the first publicly gay male athlete to compete in a major North American professional sports league as he took to the basketball court in Los Angeles.

NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games over the past two weeks dedicated less than two hours to LGBTI issues. It’s a critical moment in the fight for LGBTI rights in Russia.

But first–just for a moment–let’s talk hardware. Openly bisexual Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst was the most decorated competitor at the Sochi Games, with two gold and three silver medals. She’s only the eighth athlete ever to win five medals at a Winter Olympics, and with plans to compete in 2018, she’s only two medals away from the career record for female competitors at the Winter Olympics. When Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz took silver, she commented, “When you are in the media, many people maybe knew my name and also knew that I am married with a woman. And now the Olympic Games are here in Russia and . . . . I hope for the future that the people now can see the sport as a chance to change something.”

Athletes spend years training, practicing, and building strength and skills before they are ready for the Olympics. In a sense, human rights work is much the same. We have to take the long view on achieving success. LGBTI activists around the world may see the recent successes in the United States and think they happened overnight. But the first U.S. lawsuit for marriage equality was filed here in Minnesota in 1970–it took 43 years for our state to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.

What can we do to help with Russia, and other countries that do not respect LGBTI rights? It can seem overwhelming, but there are a variety of strategies that human rights advocates can use to push for reform. And each strategy can be a piece of an overall solution. But human rights victories–like Olympic athletes–don’t happen overnight.

In the run-up to the Olympics, activists suggested a variety of strategies to promote LGBTI rights in Russia: showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians, holding perpetrators of anti-LGBTI violence accountable, challenging laws in court, engaging in advocacy at the United Nations, and pressing businesses to condemn the propaganda law and send a message of tolerance.

Which strategies are best? When The Advocates for Human Rights works on human rights issues, we use a set of steps to identify effective strategies. Let’s take a look at four of those steps, and see how six strategies measure up. (And even though this post is specific to LGBTI rights in Russia, this same analysis applies to LGBTI rights in other parts of the world, or to other human rights issues.)

Step 1: Understand the context

We need to look closely at the context in which the human rights violations occur. For example, much of the anti-gay sentiment in Russia is fueled by nationalism. So direct diplomatic advocacy from other countries may backfire. For example, journalist and free expression advocate Cathal Sheerin “interviewed a number of Russian journalists, filmmakers, writers and activists,” some of whom “suggested that protests made by cultural groups, students, artists and NGOs have much more influence than demands made by governments. This is partly because Putin switches into defensive ‘Cold War Mode’ when foreign governments criticise him. Pleas made by non-governmental groups, however, are much harder to dismiss as self-interested, political machinations. And for that reason, they have more chance of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian citizens.”

But even direct collaboration with international organizations may backfire. In October, Russian authorities bugged a private strategy meeting between Russian LGBTI activists and several international human rights organizations. The state-run television channel broadcast audio from the meeting, presenting it as an expose of western “homosexualists who attempt to infiltrate our country.”

In addition, LGBTI people in Russia are vulnerable, facing discrimination, bullying, threats, and physical attacks. The first principle of human rights work is “Do no harm.” We need to make sure that our actions don’t put LGBTI Russians in more danger.

In Russia, there are additional legal considerations. Russia’s Foreign Agents law requires groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Another law bans funding from the United States that supports “political” activity by non-governmental organizations, and bans NGOs that engage in work that is “directed against Russia’s interests.” The Russian Government also recently expanded its definition of treason to potentially criminalize participation in international human rights advocacy. So groups in Russia might not be able to collaborate directly with their counterparts in other countries. The Russian groups who were victims of bugging last year fear they may now be sanctioned under the Foreign Agents law.

Step 2: Work in partnership

The Advocates for Human Rights works to promote human rights in the United States and around the world. When we do human rights work concerning other countries, we work in partnership with either local, in-country groups or with diaspora groups that want to influence human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. These partnerships are critical, because our partners understand the local context–they have a good sense of what types of strategies would be effective, and which ones might backfire. They also have a clearer understanding of the legal context in which they operate and the types of actions that may result in fines or other penalties for violating Russian law.

Step 3: Identify goals and strategies

It is important to set goals before deciding on a human rights strategy. An over-arching human rights goal might be that all LGBTI people in Russia are safe and live with dignity. We look at a variety of strategies to achieve this goal, such as:

  • Showing sympathy and support for LGBTI Russians
  • Getting the “gay propaganda” law repealed
  • Stopping violence and persecution based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Holding perpetrators of violence and persecution accountable

Our Discover Human Rights training addresses in greater detail how to identify goals and the steps to achieve them.

Tactical map Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr
A tactical mapping exercise
Photo credit: aniquenyc, flickr

Step 4: Use tactical mapping

In looking at these goals and strategies, we need to figure out who we need to influence, such as:

  • Concerned individuals and groups around the world
  • Russian lawmakers
  • Russian civil society
  • Russian courts
  • Russian law enforcement officials and prosecutors
  • Companies that do business in Russia

How do proposed strategies measure up?

August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics Photo Credit Adam Groffman, flickr
August 2013 protest in Berlin calling for boycott of the Sochi Olympics
Photo Credit: Adam Groffman, flickr

When Russia passed its propaganda law last summer, some of the first responses were calls for boycotts. LGBTI activists in Russia responded with requests not to boycott the Olympic Games. In the context of the Olympics, boycotts can do more harm than good, because they cause the most harm to athletes–people who are not in a position to change a country’s laws. An effort to boycott Russian vodka had some limited success. It helped raise awareness about the propaganda law, and prompted one vodka maker to speak out against the law and donate to the cause.

Although boycotts can sometimes be powerful tools to promote human rights, but it’s important to think broadly and listen to the in-country advocates to evaluate which strategies will be most effective. Last month, The Advocates published Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities. It’s a 400+ page toolkit of resources for human rights advocacy. We developed these resources in response to requests from diaspora groups, but they are equally valuable for other individuals and groups who want to be more effective advocates for human rights. Paving Pathways explores many strategies that have been proposed for promoting LGBTI rights in Russia:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

1. Showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians: When asked what people around the world can do to support LGBTI people in Russia, Дети-404 founder Elena Klimova suggested, “we are always very pleased when we receive letters and photos from abroad . . . . Then we understand that we are not alone, and that gives us strength and hope for a better future.” You can reach the Deti-404 team at 404deti@gmail.com. You can like Дети-404 on Facebook, or set up a VK.com account and join the Дети-404 community there. If you don’t speak Russian, you can read some translated Deti-404 submissions here.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Openly gay Olympian Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff has denounced Russia’s propaganda law, and openly gay Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas displayed a rainbow and unicorn glove to the cameras after one of her runs in Sochi. Several athletes are part of the Principle 6 Movement, using the non-discrimination language of the Olympic Charter to show solidarity with LGBTI Russians without violating the Olympic ban on political speech.

Brian Boitano, one of the openly gay Olympians who was part of the U.S. delegation to Sochi, reported that during a press conference, “[m]ost of the questions that were posed to me were about Obama’s message” in including him in the delegation. “Everywhere we went, people knew our message, and they were congratulating us,” he continued. “It was amazing: everyone in Russia knew exactly why we were there.”

Social media can be a great advocacy tool. On Twitter, you can follow Russian LGBTI groups and individuals like RUSA LGBT, the Russian LGBT Network, Gay Russia, Rainbow Association, Straights for LGBT Equality, Elena Kostyuchenko, and Nikolai Alexeyev. And you can monitor developments on Queerussia and Gay Russia and check out Mads Nissen’s striking photo essay of LGBTI activists in Russia.

Kirill Maryin is a 17-year-old from Novosibirsk who tweets about his personal experiences as well as the Russian propaganda law and how it is being enforced:

“I wanted people who live abroad to hear the true story of life for LGBT teenagers from Russia,” Maryin told the Guardian. “I am an ordinary LGBT teenager, and in this country, that is incredibly dangerous.” You can follow Maryin on Twitter and send him a message of support.

The It Gets Better Project has a campaign to show support for LGBTI youth in Russia; people can submit their own videos and add their names to a message of support.

It’s important to understand how critical our expressions of solidarity and support can be. Over the last two weeks, eight LGBTI Ugandans have attempted suicide over that country’s harsh new law. Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe.

“I don’t like being an activist,” journalist Elena Kostyuchenko told a reporter. But “[i]t’s a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming.” If you know a human rights defender or LGBTI person in Russia like Kostyuchenko who may be at risk, show them support on social media and give them a link to our Resources for Human Rights Defenders.

2. Shutting down vigilante groups: My fourth post in this series described how vigilante groups use social media to hunt down LGBTI youth and publicize their attacks. Sometimes their activities violate the terms of service of these social media providers. After inquiries from the Guardian ealier this month, В Kонтакте (VK.com) pledged to remove violent content and delete the accounts of offenders, but five days later only one video had been removed. If you use Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, or VK, report these violations and help get the groups shut down. Instagram recently pulled the accounts of two Occupy Pedophilia leaders. One activist is asking for help to use social media to track down the identity of people involved in anti-gay violence in order to prompt Russian authorities to bring charges.

3. Accountability: Russian authorities have been slow to take on the vigilante groups that are largely responsible for violence against LGBTI Russians. But last week, a Russian court sentenced three Russian men for killing and robbing several gay men in Moscow in 2012. And authorities have brought charges against at least two participants in the Occupy Pedophilia vigilante group. Advocates can work with their Russian counterparts to determine the most effective ways to encourage further prosecutions for these crimes.

There are also opportunities to hold the U.S.-based architects of Russia’s anti-LGBTI laws accountable. As I noted last week, Scott Lively is being sued under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The Center for Constitutional Rights is considering bringing a similar suit against Lively for his work in Russia.

4. Litigation: Domestic courts and regional human rights mechanisms can be effective avenues for advocacy. Russian LGBTI activists Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko are setting up a legal challenge to the propaganda law. They have been fined 4,000 rubles each for picketing a children’s library in Arkhangelsk while holding up banners saying, “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” “The verdicts open the way for appealing the ban on gay propaganda at Russia’s Constitutional court and later at the European Court of Human Rights,” Alexeyev told GayRussia. Russia’s courts have shown some signs of independence, throwing out charges against Deti-404‘s Klimova and rejecting some prosecutions for violations of the Foreign Agents law. But the Constitutional Court has upheld convictions of regional anti-propaganda laws, and the Russian Supreme Court has rejected similar appeals.

ch10 european courtEven though the prospects for success in Russia’s courts aren’t promising, activists first need to exhaust their remedies in their own domestic legal system before taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Paul Johnson at the University of York has done a thorough analysis of the prospects for a challenge to the propaganda law in the European Court of Human rights. The European Court is already considering a case challenging a local propaganda law, and the court has expressed interest in adding consideration of the newer federal law to that case.

UN flags_HighRes-25. Advocacy at the United Nations: Most of the UN human rights treaty bodies have “communications mechanisms” that individuals can use to bring a complaint alleging that their government has violated the treaty text. In 2010, Irina Fedotovna submitted a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee to challenge a local law banning “gay propaganda” in Ryazan, Russia. She had been charged under that law after displaying signs saying “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” near a secondary school. In 2012, the Human Rights Committee concluded that her conviction amounted to a violation of her rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and found that Fedotovna was entitled to compensation. Yet despite this ruling, in 2013 Russia adopted its federal propaganda law.

UN advocacy may pose risks to Russian organizations; Russian authorities have cited advocacy with the UN Committee Against Torture as evidence that the St. Petersburg anti-discrimination group Memorial is a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Russia routinely ignores the resolutions and findings of UN human rights bodies, so it’s important to weigh the potential positive effects of successful UN advocacy with potential risks and costs at the national level.

6. Corporate influence: Some Olympic sponsors have faced sharp criticism in social media for not condemning Russia’s propaganda law. Activists have generated visibility for those issues by spinning social media promotions by Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to raise visibility about human rights. Activists transformed McDonald’s #CheersToSochi campaign into a social media tool to raise awareness about the propaganda law. And these campaigns had impressive spillover effects, prompting other major companies like AT&T and Chobani to show their support for LGBTI rights. Chevrolet and Coca-Cola also committed to broadcast television advertisements during the Olympics with diverse casts, including gay families. Advertising can help shape public opinion in other countries, too. Advocacy targeting businesses is also a particularly important tool when business practices themselves are directly responsible for human rights violations.

The games are over, the fight goes on

Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Over the next four years, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the next major international sporting event in Russia takes place in a climate of safety and dignity for competitors, fans, and for all LGBTI Russians.

What will you do to promote LGBTI rights? Which strategies do you think would be most effective? How would you tailor strategies to combat LGBTI persecution in other parts of the world, like Cameroon, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Uganda? Are there in-country or diaspora partners you can work with? Will you spread the word and help build a movement to promote LGBTI rights around the world?

This post is the last in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world.  Part 2  examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 examined the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Ludovic Bertron, Wikimedia Commons (modified).

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

LGBT_activist_attacked_in_St.-Petersburg

When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:


Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”

So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.

Times have changed

When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”

Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.

Vigilante violence incited

Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons
Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square
Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons

The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.

Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (VK.com)–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.

With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:

Occupy Pedophilia, one of the neo-Nazi groups featured in the video, claims to have 30 branches and to have kidnapped and assaulted nearly 1,500 gay Russians over the last 18 months. The group asserts that it is targeting child molesters, but most of its targets are young gay men, and anti-gay rhetoric and symbols feature prominently in the group’s attacks. According to the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, the group uses VK to target teenagers who reply to same-sex personal advertisements. Group members beat up and humiliate their victims, and then question them about their sex lives; despite the group’s purported interest in tracking down pedophiles, they never make references to children in these videotaped interrogations. The group coordinates its attacks and recruits new members through VK, where it has over 90,000 followers and regularly uploads videos showing victims being violently attacked and humiliated. YouTube returns over 23,000 search results for the group.

An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.

And there have been other troubling acts of vigilante violence:

Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko
Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
  • At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
  • On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
  • In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
  • In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.

“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”

Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity

These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games.  In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”

Occupy Pedophilia groups have “so far enjoyed almost total impunity for their treatment of homosexuals. None has been prosecuted and the group even appears to have tacit official support. Edited versions of the gang’s videos have even been broadcast on a local television station.”

(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)

In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”

“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon

Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:

  • Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
  • Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
  • A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
  • A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.

And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.

This post is the fourth in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world.  Part 2  examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

For information about vigilante violence directed at LGBTI people in Cameroon, read The Advocates’ shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and these related posts:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Roma Yandolin, Wikimedia Commons

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

RainbowFLASH

Update: Great news! A district court in Nizhni Tagil acquitted Elena Klimova on charges of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, according to a report this morning from Deti-404.

In the court hearing, Klimova’s attorney, Maria Kozlovskaya, presented an expert opinion that Deti-404 does not contain information that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations,” and that in fact the site helps LGBTI teenagers cope with their feelings. Kozlovskaya, an attorney for the Russian LGBT Network, that the law contradicts “Russia’s international obligations and, as it was proved by the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, consolidates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and violates the freedom of speech.”

“. . . [S]ometimes common sense wins,” Klimova said, expressing her relief.

Vitali Milonov, the St. Petersburg deputy who called for Klimova to be charged under the law, announced on Twitter that he will appeal the court’s decision. In a statement on Facebook, the Deti-404 team responded: “The Deti-404 project will continue to work regardless of any attack on us. Only one reason can serve as a pretext for closing the project – complete overcoming of homophobia in Russia and the cessation of harassment of LGBT teens. We hope that such a time will surely come!”

Original post:

In 2010, in response to an alarming escalation in the number of students in the United States committing suicide after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage and his then-partner (now husband) Terry Miller created a YouTube video with a message of hope for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people facing harassment.

Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr
Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr

Savage and Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a way for supporters around the world to use social media to record and share video messages telling LGBTI youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.

LGBTI youth in all corners of the world can feel isolated and alone, lacking support from peers, teachers, and frequently even their own families. These young people can often find solace and support on the internet, whether by watching It Gets Better Project videos, joining Facebook support groups, tweeting about their experiences, or joining anonymous chat rooms where they can talk with other LGBTI youth.

Youth suicide in Russia is a chronic problem; rates are three times the world average, and Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe. Russia’s law banning gay propaganda strikes at the very heart of critical lifelines for vulnerable LGBTI youth.

From Sochi to Social Media: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Free Expression

Despite President Putin’s assurances that LGBTI visitors to the Olympics could “feel free,” on Sunday Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former member of the Italian Parliament, after she held up a sign in Olympic Park saying “Gay is Okay” in Russian. Upon her arrival in Sochi, she tweeted:

On Monday, Luxuria was again detained, this time as she attempted to enter an arena to watch an Olympic hockey game. She was wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and had been shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Four men who were not wearing identification surrounded her and shouted, “Take her away.” They placed her in a car with Olympic markings, stripped Luxuria of her Olympic spectator pass, and dumped her in the countryside about a 10-minute drive from the arena. She has since been asked to leave the country.

Luxuria’s detention and de facto deportation are particularly troubling in light of the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that it “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-LGBTI propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Luxuria’s case just the latest in a series of detentions and prosecutions under the new propaganda law:

  • In December, authorities in Arkhangelsk found Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko guilty of violating the law for holding up banners in front of a children’s library reading: “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” They were fined 4,000 rubles and their appeal was denied.
  • Russian LGBTI activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan and was fined 4,000 rubles in January after a teenager saw photos of Isakov’s protest online and filed a complaint.
  • In late January, a court in Khabarovsk fined newspaper editor Alexander Suturin 50,000 rubles for publishing an interview with an openly gay teacher.
  • In January, a government commission threatened to take a 14-year-old girl to court after she held a one-person picket in the town of Kyatkova to protest the propaganda law. The commission subsequently dropped the case, but the girl remains fearful that authorities will reinstate proceedings against her.
  • A juvenile court in the city of Bryansk found a 9th grade girl in violation of the law for admitting her sexual orientation in front of her classmates. She was reportedly hospitalized after suffering a severe head injury at the hands of her father.
  • On the day before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, ten LGBTI activists were arrested in Moscow after holding rainbow flags and singing the Russian national anthem. Four others were arrested for a similar demonstration the same day in St. Petersburg.
  • At the same time, however, police allowed an anti-gay demonstration in Sochi to proceed, despite a ban on demonstrations in the Olympic host city.
  • In January, police arrested a young man named Pavel Lebedev for waving a rainbow flag as the relay brought the Olympic torch through Voronezh.

Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Дети-404, Russia’s “It Gets Better Project”

Perhaps the most troubling investigation, however, is that of Elena Klimova, 25, founder of a social media support group for LGBTI teenagers called “Дети-404. ЛГБТ подростки. Мы есть!” (Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Klimova started Deti-404 last year after a 15-year-old lesbian named Nadya from a small town in Russia reached out to her. Klimova is a journalist, and she had posted a column to a news website expressing her dismay about the draft propaganda law. Nadya, who faced ruthless bullying at school and didn’t have support from her mother, contacted Klimova to thank her for the column, saying that it had helped keep her from committing suicide.

After speaking with Nadya, Klimova wondered why nobody was doing anything to help LGBTI youth in Russia: “Many of them close in on themselves, they don’t tell anyone. They are scared of parents and classmates. If they open up, parents sometimes beat them, insult them, throw them out, take away their phones, ban them from going on the internet and even lock them up in a psychiatric clinic.”

Klimova set up Deti-404 as an online support group for LGBTI youth. The name of the group is a play on the familiar internet message “Error 404, Page Not Found,” suggesting that LGBTI youth are unable to be visible in Russia.  On the Russian social networking site В Kонтакте (VK), Deti-404’s closed group for LGBTI youth had nearly 2,000 members as of last September, and the open group now has over 20,000 supporters. Deti-404’s parallel Facebook site has over 3,900 likes, and a supporter in the United Kingdom has started a blog posting English translations of Deti-404 posts.

"I refuse to be invisible" Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons
“I refuse to be invisible!”
Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons

Deti-404’s main approach is a photo campaign. LGBTI youth are invited to send in photographs, drawings, or other images, along with personal testimony about their experiences coming out, falling in love, or facing stigma and discrimination. To date, the site has published more than 1,000 letters from LGBTI youth. Klimova and her team also provide teenagers with contact information for LGBTI-friendly psychologists.

On January 31, 2014, Russian authorities launched proceedings against Klimova for violations of the propaganda law. Russian LGBTI teenagers turned to Deti-404 to express their support for Klimova and their fears that authorities would shut down Deti-404, including these posts:

Я только нашла эту группу (долго я искала=)), только нормально поверила, что смогу принять себя как человека, и тут такое… Без боя свой кусочек свободы не отдам!

I just found this group (I looked for a long time =)), and I just began to believe that I could accept myself as a person, and now this happens. . . I won’t give up my piece of freedom without a fight!

Если закроют и это место, где я впервые почувствовала себя хоть немного свободной – Капут. Как можно то… У меня не укладывается это в голове. Поддерживаю, бедная Лена…

If they shut down this site, where I for the first time felt a little free – kaput. How could they . . . I can’t wrap my head around it. I support you, poor Elena…

This post is the third in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo of a Rainbow Flashmob in St. Petersburg on the 2009 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, courtesy Воскресенский Пётр, Wikimedia Commons.

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists Are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Moscow_Pride_2010_(Family)

On June 30, 2013, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decisions in favor of marriage equality in Windsor and Perry, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Federal Law 135, which bans propaganda to minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.”

Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law "On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development," and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values
Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development,” and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values

For several years, opponents of marriage equality in the United States have turned their attention overseas, to places like Uganda, Nigeria, and Russia, where their rhetoric about “traditional family values” and their lies conflating homosexuality with sexual abuse of children appear to have found receptive audiences. Today, as the last days of the Sochi Olympics approach, and as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni prepares to sign into law a bill that would impose punishments of up to life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” it’s important to examine Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, its effect on children, and the origins of Russia’s law and others like it.

It Gets Worse: Russia’s Propaganda Law Targets Civil Society Groups that Support LGBTI Youth

Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)
Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)

Russia’s propaganda law is designed to isolate LGBTI youth in Russia from all possible sources of support, driving them deeper into the closet and ensuring that they won’t be able to see or hear any information that could suggest anything positive about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Article 3(2)(b) of Federal Law 135 imposes administrative fines and, in the case of non-citizens, deportation, for:

Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, including distribution of information that intends minors to adopt non-traditional sexual orientations, that makes non-traditional sexual relations attractive, that presents distorted conceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or that imposes information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest in these relations.

This language is just as vague in Russian as it is in my English translation. But what’s not vague are the penalties, which show that the law’s real targets are civil society organizations and individuals who use the internet to reach out to and support Russian LGBTI youth:

  • Russian citizens: fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles ($114-$142), or enhanced penalties of 50,000-100,000 rubles ($1,419-$2,839) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Russian administrative officials: fines of 40,000-50,000 rubles ($1,140-$1,420), or enhanced penalties of 100,000-200,000 rubles ($2,839-$5,677) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Legal entities (businesses, non-governmental organizations): fines of 800,000-1,000,000 rubles ($22,710-$28,387) or suspension of activities for up to 90 days, or enhanced penalties of 1,000,000 rubles ($28,387) or suspension of business activities for up to 90 days for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Non-citizens: fines and penalties identical to those for Russian citizens, but also administrative deportation and /or administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

The vague language describing the prohibited conduct and the steep fines that escalate for individuals who distribute their “propaganda” on the internet are designed to chill speech and stifle any efforts to provide support to LGBTI youth in Russia.

Some observers have noted that eight states in the United States have laws prohibiting classroom instruction that portrays homosexuality in a positive light. But Russia’s law is much broader in scope, prohibiting everything from gay pride parades to online support groups.

“Leave the Children Alone”: Harming Children under the Pretext of Protecting Them

In attempting to reassure Olympians, coaches, and other visitors to Russia about the new law, President Putin announced in January that LGBTI people “can feel free” in Sochi, as long as they “leave the children alone.” As insinuated by Putin’s comment, and by the text of the law itself, the pretext for the law is the protection of children. As such, the law is grounded in three fundamental misconceptions and lies:

  1. Being gay is a choice
  2. LGBTI adults “recruit” young people
  3. Gay people are pedophiles

The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is the first treaty body to review Russia’s human rights record since it adopted the propaganda law last year. On January 31, the committee issued its Concluding Observations from that review, condemning the propaganda law and related policies as violating the rights of Russia’s children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The committee urged Russia to repeal the propaganda law, noting that it “encourages stigmatization and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including children, and children of LGBTI families” and “leads to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s LGBTI community, including abuse and violence, in particular against underage LGBTI activists.” The committee called on Russia to “ensure that children who belong to LGBTI groups or children of LGBTI families are not subjected to any forms of discrimination” and to “take urgent measures to prevent bullying of LGBTI children in schools by educating children and school staff and punishing the perpetrators accordingly.”

Scott Lively’s “Greatest Success”

Just a few days after the Russian Duma (parliament) unanimously passed the propaganda law last June, a delegation of U.S. and French anti-gay activists traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Duma. The U.S. delegates included Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Brown was there to testify in favor of a bill that would tighten Russia’s laws governing international adoptions, prohibiting international adoptions by same-sex couples and by single people living in countries that recognize marriage equality. The adoption ban passed five days later, and the Russian government just last week officially implemented that law.

Last October, Brown, along with Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, and several other Americans who had led the fight against LGBTI rights in the United States, was back in Moscow to plan for the World Congress of Families VIII, scheduled for September 2014 in Moscow. At least 14 American conservative leaders have lobbied Russian lawmakers to support the propaganda law and adoption legislation. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families has staff in Russia who have been actively lobbying in favor of the latest anti-gay laws in Russia.

Lively is no stranger to Russia. Nearly a decade ago, he gave up on fighting against LGBTI rights in the United States, setting his sights on Russia, Uganda, and “other countries in the world that are still culturally conservative to warn them . . .  and to help put barriers in place.” In 2006 and 2007, he conducted a 50-city tour of the former Soviet Union. In 2006, prior to Lively’s tour, the Duma had overwhelmingly rejected a bill similar to Federal Law 135.

Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012. Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012.
Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

The purpose of Lively’s tour, as he explained in his 2007 Letter to the Russian People, “was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement,” which he described as “a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.”

During the tour, Lively called on Russians to “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. . . . [H]omosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage ‘gay pride’ parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.”

Several regional governments in Russia adopted Lively’s proposed propaganda bans before the federal law took effect last June. Lively recently boasted: “My greatest success, in terms of my own personal strategy, is Russia.” He told Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association that the Russian law was one of his “proudest achievements.”

A key chapter in Lively’s worldwide playbook is the argument that lawmakers need to protect families from Western gays who are attempting to recruit their children. In his book, Redeeming the Rainbow, Lively advises opponents of gay rights to fight back against sympathy toward gays by emphasizing child recruitment and rape.

"Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia" Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
“Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia” Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

It’s probably no coincidence that in October 2013, during Lively’s last visit to Moscow, the Duma began consideration of a bill that would add sexual orientation as a ground for terminating parental rights. The Duma postponed consideration of the bill in the run-up to the Olympics, but observers predict it will be back before legislators as soon as international attention on Russia fades.

Another pernicious U.S. export to Russia is the discredited 2012 study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. His study included only two respondents who were even arguably raised by same-sex parents, and more than 200 sociologists signed a letter criticizing Regnerus’ methodology. The American Sociological Association submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Windsor case thoroughly examining the flaws in Regnerus’ work.

Lawmakers backing Russia’s bill to terminate parental rights on the basis of sexual orientation cited the study in support of the proposition that parenting by LGBTI people is dangerous, despite Regnerus’ objections to the legislation. Last June, the Regnerus study also played an important role in the Duma’s decision to pass the propaganda law and the law restricting international adoptions. Although Regnerus has refused to give an interview to the New York Times, he did an interview last year with a Russian-language news agency in Ukraine, which profiled him in an article titled “First shocking scientific facts published about the families of homosexuals,” concluding that Regnerus’ study amounted to “shocking” evidence showing the “tragic results” of same-sex parenting on children.

Lively has expanded on his work in Russia and Uganda to include Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine, all with the goal of encouraging the adoption of laws to block the open expression of homosexuality, keep discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity legal, and make pro-gay advocacy a crime.

Lively is being sued under the Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The suit, brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges that Lively’s active participation in a conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights from LGBTI persons in Uganda constitutes persecution.

This post is the second in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

1000px-LGBT_flag_map_of_Russia.svg

Last summer I spent a few days in Moscow to watch the Rugby Sevens World Cup. The tournament was held in the main stadium for the 1980 Summer Olympics—a stadium where U.S. Olympians never competed, due to a boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Fiji and South Africa compete in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow
Fiji and South Africa compete in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Moscow.
Photo by the author.

The stadium has seen better days; during a downpour, large chunks of paint fell down onto the stands. And even though tickets were affordable and the rugby competition was outstanding, the stadium was nearly empty.

During the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi last week, my thoughts again turned to Russia and the attention it has received from the international human rights community since I visited last summer. In June 2013, the Russian Duma passed a now-notorious law banning gay “propaganda.”

As athletes in Sochi wrap up the first full week of competition and the international spotlight shines on Russia, it’s important to take stock of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights in that country and what advocates for human rights can do to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity around the world.

First, a primer on why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBT rights in Russia and the rest of the world:

The Olympic Charter rejects all forms of discrimination

Every two years, the world gathers to celebrate human potential. The feats of speed, grace, teamwork, and power that we call the Olympic Games demonstrate that people from all over the world and all walks of life can achieve greatness.

The International Olympic Committee has established an Olympic Charter, which includes a set of principles for Olympic competition. Principle 4 recognizes the connection between sports and human rights:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Echoing nondiscrimination provisions in each of the major human rights treaties, Principle 6 states:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

The Olympics are an important stage for LGBT visibility

Dutch snowboarding Olympian Cheryl Maas. Photo courtesy of Mikus Kļaviņš.
Dutch snowboarding Olympian Cheryl Maas.
Photo courtesy of Mikus Kļaviņš.

The Olympics are a unique and highly visible competitive venue: men and women from around the world are selected to represent their countries in international competition, and millions of people around the world follow the events. This year, over 6,000 athletes from 85 countries are competing in Sochi. It should come as no surprise that some Olympians are LGBT. Seven competitors at the Sochi Olympics–all women–are openly gay:

  • Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff
  • Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis
  • Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz
  • Slovenian cross country skier Barbara Jezeršek
  • Dutch short track speed skater Sanne van Kerkhof
  • Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas
  • Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst

(By comparison, 23 of the over 12,000 athletes in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London were openly gay.) On Sunday, Wüst became the first openly gay athlete to take gold at Sochi. Iraschko-Stolz won a silver medal in ski jumping events on Tuesday, and Wüst won silver in competition on Thursday.

LGBT visibility in sports is an important tool for combating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

From television to politics to news reporting, LGBT visibility is an important part of the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. People who are taught to be homophobic may revisit those beliefs when they discover that someone they know and respect is gay. And LGBT youth, who may face harassment, bullying, and threats at school and even at home, and who are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, may find hope in the faces of prominent, successful openly gay people.

Sports—particularly Olympic sports—cut across cultures and languages and bring people together in a way that other collective experiences cannot. So the visibility of Olympic athletes—past and present—who are openly gay can help overcome prejudice and discrimination directed at LGBT people around the world. These athletes can also be positive role models for at-risk LGBT youth.

During the opening ceremony on Friday, IOC President Thomas Bach recognized this unifying power of Olympic competition, and called on competitors to be role models for the principle of non-discrimination:

Olympic Sport unites people. . . . Yes, it is possible to strive even for the greatest victory with respect for the dignity of your competitors. Yes, Yes, it is possible – even as competitors – to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.

(Viewers in the United States may have missed this part of Bach’s statement, which NBC edited out of its coverage. Some have criticized the edit as an apparent “diplomatic concession to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s homophobic agenda.”)

Momentum is building for more prominent athletes to come out

Much has changed since those Moscow Olympics. In 1981, former No. 1 world tennis competitors Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova came out. In 1994, U.S. Olympic diving medalist Greg Louganis disclosed that he is gay, and two years later, two openly gay U.S. divers competed in the Atlanta Olympics. Today, several current WNBA players are out, including Minnesota Lynx athletes Amber Harris, Jessica Adair, and Seimone Augustus (also a 2012 Olympian).

Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas with British Prime Minister David Cameron launching a campaign to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports. Image courtesy of UK Home Office, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Cameron_and_Gareth_Thomas.jpg
Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas with British Prime Minister David Cameron launching a campaign to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports.
Photo courtesy of the UK Home Office.

Progress in men’s professional sports has been slower. The first professional male athlete to come out while still competing was Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas in 2009. In the United States, only a handful of male professional athletes have come out to the broader public during their careers: basketball player Jason Collins, boxer Orlando Cruz, and soccer player Robbie Rogers.

In many cases, successful female athletes are already challenging traditional gender norms. So professional female athletes and female Olympians may not face as many obstacles and challenges to coming out as their male counterparts. Male Olympians who excel at sports many people view as feminine like figure skating and gymnastics face institutionalized homophobia.  And gay male professional athletes, particularly in hyper-masculine team sports like rugby and American football, challenge traditional notions of masculinity.

That’s why Missouri NFL draft prospect Michael Sam’s announcement on Sunday that he is gay seemed so earth-shattering.

All eyes are on Russia, and Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda”

With this growing recognition of the power of LGBT visibility in sports, the world’s eyes turn to Russia. Many people who are excited about the increasing acceptance and visibility of openly gay athletes, and the growing willingness of athletes to come out to their teammates, coaches, and the broader public, have been dismayed that Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Russia’s 2013 law prohibiting gay propaganda—the topic of the next post in this series—has posed problems for LGBT people in Russia, Olympic competitors, governments that have expressed a commitment to LGBT rights, and the international human rights community.

This post is the first of a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBT rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 2  will examine the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Deeper Look at Asylum “Fraud”

A Deeper Look at Asylum “Fraud”
Michele Garnett McKenzie
Michele Garnett McKenzie

Today, rather than considering whether American compassion is being taken advantage of by nefarious asylum seekers exploiting holes in our country’s immigration system, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee should ask whether our asylum system ensures that everyone who seeks asylum on our shores is met with a “strong asylum system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner.”

The United States’ commitment to those who flee to our shores seeking protection from persecution on account of their beliefs or identities is at the core of who we are as Americans. This promise was formalized when the United States committed itself to the Refugee Convention and Protocol and, in turn, when it enacted the 1980 Refugee Act. That system allows people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.

Keeping fraud out of the asylum system is essential to ensure that bona fide asylum seekers receive the protection they need. As Eleanor Acer, director of the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First, testified today, “A strong asylum and immigration system that adjudicates cases in a fair and timely manner and includes effective tools for fighting abuse, is essential both for ensuring the integrity of the U.S. immigration process as well as for protecting refugees from return to places of persecution. If individuals or groups are defrauding the asylum system, it hurts everyone, and steps should be taken to counter those abuses and punish the perpetrators. U.S. authorities have a range of effective tools to address abuses.”

But a strong, robust, and properly resourced asylum protection system combined with a reformed immigration system that grants opportunities to workers and timely reunites families – not more barriers to protection – is the answer to combatting fraud. There is a real need for Congress to direct more resources to our immigration court system, which now has just 249 judges nationwide.

While several witnesses at today’s hearing recounted cases of fraud, they offered no solutions beyond interdiction and detention – strategies that are designed not to protect refugees but instead to keep them from making their claims for protection in the first place.

We can see the failure of this deterrence approach. Today, asylum seekers are arbitrarily detained and jailed upon entry, penalizing and deterring them from seeking asylum in the United States. The system charged with adjudicating asylum claims is under-resourced, leaving some people waiting behind bars for weeks or months while immigration officials determine whether they have “credible fear” and will get a chance to ask for asylum in the United States or they will be summarily deported. Nonetheless, asylum seekers continue to ask for our protection.

The Advocates for Human Rights began working with asylum seekers soon after the Refugee Act took effect. In the three decades that followed, we have represented asylum seekers as they struggled to establish not only their claims for protection but their credibility. We see their tears – tears of pain as they recount the horrors they fled and of relief when they are granted asylum. They’re telling the truth.

By: Michele Garnett McKenziedirector of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights