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U.S. Gay Activist Savage: 'Keep Controversy Roaring' In Russia


Dan Savage: "No one is comparing what's being done to LGBT Russians to what was done to the Jews in 1943 and 1942 and 1944. But it is eerily similar to what was being done to the Jews in Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1934."

Dan Savage: "No one is comparing what's being done to LGBT Russians to what was done to the Jews in 1943 and 1942 and 1944. But it is eerily similar to what was being done to the Jews in Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1934."

American author, journalist, and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage is one of the best-known gay-rights activists in the United States, and the creator of the global It Gets Better video campaign in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.

Savage has now turned his focus to the brutal crackdown on LGBT rights in Russia. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar, Savage talks about vodka boycotts, the Sochi Olympics, and what Russian activists can do to fight back against a rising tide of violence and repressive laws.

RFE/RL: You and your partner, Terry Miller, launched the It Gets Better campaign in 2010 in response to the suicide of a 15-year-old boy who had been bullied by schoolmates for being gay. Was there a single incident in Russia that motivated you to get involved there?

Dan Savage:
I, along with everyone else, have been watching for the last few years the rising tide of intolerance and politically motivated hatred and violence in Russia, and feeling at the same time like there was nothing you could do. They're describing gay-rights organizations as foreign agents, so it began to feel like any move we made out here in the West would play into the hands of the bigots and potentially make things worse.

But it reached a point with the passage of those laws -- laws banning gay-pride parades for 100 years, and what's been going on in St. Petersburg, the violence -- that it didn't seem like we could remain silent any longer. And it didn't seem like making a move could possibly make things any worse.

RFE/RL: This summer, you helped launch a boycott of Russian vodka to protest the LGBT crackdown. A growing number of bars in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia are taking part. Some people have criticized the boycott as ineffective, but you've defended its success.

Savage:
The idea behind a boycott of an iconic product like vodka, a nation's signature consumer product, is to get people talking, to draw attention to the reason why you called for that boycott. Nobody was talking about what was going on in Russia -- what was being done to LGBT people in that country, about these horrifying laws -- until we called for this boycott. That is what a boycott is supposed to do. Nobody suggested that boycotting Russian vodka would dethrone President Vladimir Putin, that it would bring Russia to its knees, that it would destroy the Russian economy.

RFE/RL: Do you favor a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics as well?

Savage:
I think the best option right now is to keep the controversy roaring. I don't believe that the Sochi Olympics will be canceled. I don't think that they will be moved. I think they should be moved. I think they should be boycotted, personally.

RFE/RL: If the Sochi Games aren't boycotted or relocated, what other forms of protest can be made?

Savage:
I don't know what moves the athletes can make. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is being very weaselly. The IOC has said they will not tolerate any political activism or political statements. And Russia has banned all demonstrations, meetings, and protests in Sochi during the Olympics.
I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.

So I don't know what's going to happen at Sochi. We've seen some athletes step up and make some brave statements, some brave gestures. And you have some Russian LGBT activists saying people should come to Sochi and protest. Not a boycott of Sochi, but a "go-cott." What's that going to look like? With everything the Russian government is saying about banning demonstrations, about arresting people, gay or straight, if they violate these heinous laws? I can't make a prediction. But it's increasingly looking explosive.

'Fighting Injustice'

RFE/RL: Are you in communication with Russian LGBT activists about the situation on the ground?

Savage:
I'm getting a very clear picture. I live in Seattle, Washington. And there isn't a large Russian or Russian gay community here. The large Russian community and large Russian gay community is in New York City. And I'm following very closely their statements and following meetings that are going on there.

I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.

RFE/RL: A number of straight Russian activists have become supporters of the country's LGBT movement. Is this a significant development?

Savage:
It's hugely important. And nothing would give the struggle for LGBT civil equality a bigger boost in Russia than straight people taking up the cause. What really changed things for gay people in the United States and the West was gay people coming out, and the hearts and minds of their friends and families and co-workers and neighbors being changed.

It's hard for someone to believe that gay people are monsters when they personally know a gay person and they see that we are not monsters. Straight people have changed and moved and begun to see our common humanity in a way that they didn't used to be able to, because we weren't out to them. That's what's so dangerous about this law in Russia -- it basically makes it illegal to be out.

RFE/RL: Russian LGBT activists are under constant danger of violence and arrest. How should they respond in the face of those threats?

Savage:
People need to protect themselves physically. I think that if people want to get to the West and claim asylum, then that's not an unreasonable thing to do right now. But I think about movements like Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's. People were attacked by dogs, knocked down by fire hoses, thrown into jail. People were murdered.

People literally put their bodies on the line, in both cases, to fight for justice. And I think nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of a violent response from the state is sometimes required. Not everybody has that in them. Anyone who feels that they can't do that shouldn't be shamed, or feel ashamed, for not participating in that kind of physical protest, putting your body on the line. But eventually that is what it will take.

RFE/RL: Russia has passed a law banning the adoption of Russian-born children by gay parents and parents living in countries that allow same-sex marriage. What's your view of that law, given that you yourself are the gay parent of an adopted child?

Savage:
My partner and I -- my husband now, in the United States -- we've been together almost 20 years. And 15 years ago, we adopted at birth our son, D.J. All the studies show that same-sex couples are as fit and qualified to parent as opposite-sex couples. All the studies show that children being raised by same-sex couples are just as happy, healthy, and likely to be straight when they grow up as children of opposite-sex couples.
Same-sex couples should be praised for adopting children who might otherwise not have homes, who might otherwise languish in the foster-care system or be institutionalized.

Same-sex couples should be praised for adopting children who might otherwise not have homes, who might otherwise languish in the foster-care system or be institutionalized. And that's the case with my family. My son's birth mom was a homeless street kid and his birth dad was a homeless street kid, and they absolutely did the right thing. Neither of them were able to parent, and they were loving and smart enough to know that they couldn't raise this child, that they had to do an adoption. The first couple that was offered my son to adopt was a straight couple and they rejected him. And another straight couple was offered my son to adopt, and they also rejected him. We were the third couple that he was offered to.

'Like Nazi Germany in 1933-34'

RFE/RL: You've compared what's going on now in Russia to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Can you elaborate?

Savage:
The Nazi terror wasn't the Holocaust in a day. There was a gradual escalation of scapegoating, anti-Semitism, and political violence. No one is comparing what's being done to LGBT Russians to what was done to the Jews in 1943 and 1942 and 1944. But it is eerily similar to what was being done to the Jews in Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1934. The initial persecution campaigns, the stigmatization, the codification into law of anti-Semitism and this kind of bigotry. All of those parallels are identical.

RFE/RL: Part of the reason the It Gets Better campaign has been a global success is that it gives victimized LGBT people the feeling that there's reason to believe their lives will improve. Do you feel like you can tell LGBT people in Russia that things will get better?

Savage:
Worldwide attention on these attacks on LGBT people that are being posted on YouTube is prompting some police response at last. And a similar law to the one passed in Russia was floated in Armenia and has now been tabled because Armenia doesn't want to draw this kind of attention or pushback or reaction from the world community. So there's some evidence that it can, if not get better, then at least not get worse, in the short run.

RFE/RL: If you had the chance to speak to Vladimir Putin, what would you tell him?

Savage:
People who rule through terror and fear do not wind up being the beloved fathers of their country who are remembered forever. The murdering of journalists, persecution of racial minorities, persecution of sexual minorities, the persecution of his political enemies.... This is not the course you take if you want history to judge you as having left the country that you claim to love in better shape than you found it.

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