We know you’ve done us a lot of favors lately, after getting off to a slow start. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the call for the Boy Scouts to admit gay troops, all those gay ambassadors you’ve named. Once you finally evolved on marriage equality, you became an eloquent supporter and have been made it clear that the federal government recognizes same-sex marriages now that DOMA is gone.
But here’s the thing about evolution: it doesn’t end. (Although in the case of the GOP, the trend may be in the opposite direction. But that’s another story.) And that’s why it’s time to take on your toughest challenge yet: letting Russia — and in particular your counterpart, Vladimir Putin — know that the U.S. won’t tolerate its attacks on the LGBT community, Russia is fast on its way to cinching the title as among the most homophobic world powers (the competition for the title is sadly fierce), a title one suspects Putin would be glad to embrace. The government bans same-sex adoptions, squashes gay pride rallies, and criminalizes sharing information about the LGBT community to minors.
As a result, vicious attacks against anyone who is gay, including murder, are rampant. According to a poll, half of Russians believe that gays and lesbians should be treated medically, while 5% believe that they should simply be ‘‘destroyed.’’ The situation has grown increasingly tense since Russia displayed its willingness just last week to arrest foreign tourists for spreading gay “propaganda.”
Mr. President, you will be headed to Russia in early September for a economic summit, so you have the chance to make a high-profile statement about Russia’s horrific policies. We’d like to suggest seven things you can do or say in the run-up to the trip and during it to make it clear where the U.S. — and you — stand on LGBT rights:
Promise to put the spotlight on LGBT issues during the Olympics.
Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and already the calls for boycotting the games are heating up. The U.S. could instead seize the opportunity to make a point of celebrating LGBT athletes and contrasting Russian homophobia with U.S. inclusiveness. The nice part of this approach is that other countries would likely join us, so it would be a multinational effort, and on Russian soil.
Press Russia and the International Olympic Committee to secure a guarantee of safety for LGBT athletes.
You should be asking Russia to ensure that any gay athlete competing in the Winter Olympics should be able to do so with the certainty of their personal safety. You also need to put pressure on the International Olympic Committee to make a similar demand, so that it too is on record for supporting an atmosphere devoid of homophobia.
Strengthen the State Department warnings to gay travelers.
It’s not that LGBT tourists are likely to be traveling to Russia in droves any time soon, but give the persistent threats and general atmosphere, a strong warning would be in order. Right now, the State Department does note, passively, that “acts of violence targeting LGBT individuals have occurred,” but doesn’t specifically say that the government’s open hostility to LGBT travelers makes Russia an unsafe destination. Making that point clearer would serve travelers and send a message to the Russian government. We don’t think John Kerry would mind you asking him to look into that.
Hold a meeting with gay activists during the presidential trip.
In the Soviet era (which Russia increasingly emulates), presidents made a point of at least trying to meet with dissidents when they had a chance. The meetings didn’t always come off, and the effort angered the Soviets, but the attempt sent a clear signal of support for the dissidents’ cause. There’s no reason for you to abandon that tradition when it comes to LGBT issues. Even an encounter between you and out gay TV personality Anton Krasovsky would convey the U.S.’s disdain for Russian homophobia. You know the power of the photo op. One picture can send a really strong message.
Speak out in support of LGBT rights to the press while in Russia.
You’re known for your eloquence and you’ve also proven you can challenge a host on gay issues before. At a press conference during a visit to Senegal, you made a point of saying “when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” a comment clearly directed at the country’s antigay laws. Senegal President Macky Sall was none to pleased, but the comment got international press. But you said what you said because it was the right thing to say. If anything, that would go double for Russia.
Sign on to the UN’s Free & Equal campaign.
This is an easy one, The campaign, which was just launched, operates out of the office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. The assumption has been that the campaign will start its work in Africa, but one of the UN’s most powerful members needs the campaign most. You can speak out in support of the campaign and diplomatically prod the UN to start looking at what the Free & Equal campaign would look like for Russia.
Tell Putin he’s wrong to his face.
Yeah, that won’t be fun. Let’s face it. Putin is an immovable force. He doesn’t care what the world thinks, let alone you, He’d probably look at you with a mixture of contempt and anger. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the high ground and say point blank that Russian homophobia is destructive and immoral. The Presidency has always been looked to as the voice of human rights worldwide. You could do what Reagan is now admired for by calling Russia on its human rights violations.
We know you’ve got a lot of other things on your plate to talk about. There’s the Edward Snowden drama, the Syrian civil war and a long list of other issues. But your previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made it explicit that U.S. foreign policy has to recognize LGBT rights. We know you play a long game. If you are looking to secure your legacy as the president who changed the landscape for us, this would be it.
Telling Putin to knock off the homophobia and violence isn’t going to be easy. It may not even change anything. But if you don’t do it, who will? It’s not just the LGBT community in the U.S. who will be watching you. It’s all the people in Russia who face attacks and even death because of who they are. You have a chance to be their voice. We hope you will seize the opportunity.
The Queerty Editors
Photo credit: The White House