Obama's Silence on LGBT-Rights Abuses in Russia

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

President Barack Obama at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall last month

Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn't kidding about cracking down on LGBT rights. On Sunday, four Dutch filmmakers were arrested under the country's new "gay propaganda" law. Signed by Putin on June 30 after passing unanimously in the State Duma, the measure bans both private and public expressions of support for gay rights deemed to be accessible to minors and prescribes fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000) for violations. The filmmakers, who came to the country earlier this month to shoot a documentary about gay life in Murmansk, were taken into custody after police went through their footage and found an interview with a 17-year-old gay man (a minor under Russian law). While the foursome was fined for visa violations and let go, it is the first instance of the anti-gay law being enforced against visitors to the country.

The gay blogosphere and international human-rights organizations have closely watched Russia's crusade against the gay community. However, it has generated little response in either the mainstream media or in official foreign-policy channels, as pointed out in a New York Times editorial yesterday. Instead, the media has focused on whether passage of the law will affect athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia; the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has expressed "concern" about the treatment of  athletes during the games but is forging forward with its plans.

While German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has condemned the anti-gay "propaganda" law, most of the international community has been equally silent on LGBT-rights abuses in Russia.

But nowhere is this omission more glaring than from the Obama administration. The president has declared promoting LGBT rights abroad a cornerstone of his foreign-policy agenda but has yet to follow up on that promise outside of Africa. On a diplomatic trip to the continent last month, President Obama told reporters at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall that "when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally." Last month, the administration denounced the brutal murder of gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe in Cameroon. And over the past few years, it has taken strong stances against anti-LGBT legislation in African countries—particularly in Uganda, where a proposed bill would proscribe the death penalty for anyone convicted of "aggravated homosexuality."

In December 2011, the White House released a presidential memorandum directing executive officers and agencies that deal in foreign affairs to address human-rights abuses against LGBT people abroad and pressure foreign governments to decriminalize homosexuality. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up on the memo's release with a speech at the United Nations, where she proclaimed that "gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights." At the time, the Obama administration announced it would consider treatment of LGBT people in doling out foreign aid.

In practice, the president's pro-gay foreign-policy agenda over the last year and a half has had fewer teeth that it appeared it would have, a common source of criticism for many liberal activists who had equally big hopes about Obama’s lofty rhetoric on other progressive issues like the environment and reproductive rights. The United States has not withheld foreign aid based on countries' treatment of gay people; its achievements have been more in the arena of "soft power." A recently released fact sheet from the State Department highlights its progress thus far, which includes establishing "rapid response mechanisms" for embassies to respond to LGBT-rights abuses, outlining ways to promote gay rights in different regions, and improving its personnel policy. Through the Global Equality Fund, the State Department has also helped 70 gays and gay-rights supporters in 25 countries with legal representation, security, and, in some instances, help with relocating.

But when it comes to persecution of LGBT people in Russia, the administration hardly seems aware it is going on. Neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has issued any statements on the passage of the country's anti-gay "propaganda" law. Asked last week if the president was aware of calls for the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Olympic Games in protest of Russia's passage of the legislation, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said he was not aware of the calls and that the administration did not have "a specific response from [the president] or from the White House." "The State Department may have more information," he added. But while State has updated its travel guidelines to warn LGBT travelers of the rise of anti-gay laws in local regions (and plans to update its guidelines now that the national law has passed), only Ambassador Ian Kelly,* who represents the U.S. before the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has condemned the recently passed law at the organization's headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the State Department underscored the agency's broader efforts to promote LGBT rights abroad and "call[ed] on Russia to uphold its international commitments regarding freedom of assembly and freedom of expression." A senior State Department official made similar statements in an interview last month with the Washington Blade, a D.C.-based LGBT newspaper. But outside of these two instances, the White House's and State Department's responses to Russia's anti-LGBT "propaganda" law have been nil.

The lurking question is why the administration has taken such a hard line on LGBT-rights abuses in Africa while letting them slip under the radar when it comes to Russia. One could attribute this to the U.S.'s fraught relationship with the country since Putin narrowly won re-election last year; the Russian president has doubled-down on his long-standing effort to assert his country's independence from the West. U.S. officials could also be treading carefully given the sensitivities behind Edward Snowden's asylum request. But given that the president appears unaware of the outcry over the propaganda law, this seems a generous reading of the facts. It may simply be the case that gay-rights advocates have yet to make enough noise to press the administration to act.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Ambassador Ian Kelly as gay; Kelly has a wife and three kids. It is his designated successor, Daniel Baer, who identifies as gay. Baer is currently deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor and is awaiting confirmation by the Senate to assume Kelly's role.

Follow the author on Twitter @gabrielarana

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