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From The U.S. To Russia, 2013 Was The Year LGBT Rights Went Global

A doll with Vladimir Putin's face next to a gay rights flag as protesters demonstrate outside Downing Street in central London, in August, 2013.
A doll with Vladimir Putin's face next to a gay rights flag as protesters demonstrate outside Downing Street in central London, in August, 2013.

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By Daisy Sindelar
Yelena Goltsman describes June 30, 2013, as one of the best days of her life -- and also one of the worst.

On the one hand, it was the day that she and other Russian-speaking members of New York's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community debuted the first-ever Russian float in the city's annual Gay Pride parade.

The parade came just days after landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings bolstering the right of same-sex couples to marry. Goltsman, who had immigrated from Soviet Ukraine years before coming out in New York, said she was "elated" to be recognized as equal with fellow American citizens.

But on the other hand, for the parade's Russian-speakers, there was a darker side as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin had chosen the same day to sign a law prohibiting gay propaganda, a sweeping setback in a country that had decriminalized homosexuality 20 years earlier.

At such moments, "it's very difficult to live in both worlds," Goltsman says. "The parade and the signing of this document happened on the same day. You can't describe it any other way than bittersweet."

From Shadows To Center Stage

As the United States in 2013 marked a historic breakthrough in LGBT rights, Russia witnessed some notorious lows. Putin's regressive new law accompanied a horrific wave of violence, with gay men assaulted and killed, same-sex parents threatened with losing their children, and LGBT activists brutally beaten in plain view of police.

Putin, who has sought to muzzle all forms of dissent since returning to the presidency last year, might have expected such domestic incidents to pass unnoticed. But two things stood in his way: the growing globalization of the LGBT movement, and Russia's high-stakes role as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

If two years ago, the plight of Russian gays ranked low on the Western rights agenda, in 2013 it was front and center -- inspiring diplomatic pressure, vodka-dumping campaigns, celebrity support from the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga, and even a special mention in the U.S. satirical "Mad" magazine's list of the year's 20 "dumbest" things.

Gay rights activist Yelena GoltsmanGay rights activist Yelena Goltsman
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Gay rights activist Yelena Goltsman
Gay rights activist Yelena Goltsman
For its part, Goltsman's organization, RUSA LGBT, has demonstrated on Wall Street during a visit by a Russian business delegation, and recently picketed New York's Metropolitan Opera during an opening-night gala attended by Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater and a close friend of Putin's.

Such demonstrations proved effective attention-getters in the United States. But Goltsman said RUSA, which works closely with LGBT groups in the former Soviet Union, had to reconsider their approach when it came to a major global event like Sochi.

"We had advocated from the very beginning for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics," she says. "But our counterparts in Russia, for the most part, are against boycotting Sochi. They would like to use this opportunity and highlight to the world what is going on with the rights of LGBT people in Russia. So we kind of scaled back the intensity of our campaign."

'Standing Alone'

Rather than an outright boycott, many LGBT activists have now instead set their sights on criticizing corporate sponsors backing the billion-dollar Sochi games, whose start date is less than six weeks away.

The IOC has acknowledged that several of the sponsors -- including major international corporations like McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, and Coca-Cola -- have expressed concern about potential unrest at the Games and how it may affect their bottom line. But for the most part, few of the sponsors have expressed willingness to press Russia and the IOC for a stronger commitment to LGBT rights.

Other organizations are looking for ways to promote an agenda of nondiscrimination without violating Olympic rules prohibiting political statements.

Youths kick a gay rights activist during a protest in central Moscow in June, 2013.
Youths kick a gay rights activist during a protest in central Moscow in June, 2013.

Two groups, All Out and Athlete Ally, in early December launched a campaign, called Principle 6 that would allow competing athletes and spectators to wear T-shirts and other clothing citing the IOC's own mission statement, which declares any form of discrimination to be "incompatible" with the Olympic movement.

Andre Banks is co-founder of All Out, a political mobilization group which has 1.9 million members worldwide.  He says the intense focus on Sochi, combined with the wave of marriage-equality rulings in countries like the United States and France, have permanently transformed the fight for LGBT rights into a global human rights cause where change is likely to come sooner rather than later.

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"People are picking up on the momentum from places like the United States that have had some important policy victories," says Banks. "And they're using that to build positive global momentum for the kinds of changes that would make it possible to get rid of laws that still make it a crime to be gay in 76 countries."

Some government leaders have initiated their own form of pressure, by announcing they will not attend the Sochi Olympics. Francois Hollande and Joachim Gauck, the presidents of France and Germany, are skipping the Winter Games, as are Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, who is sending in his stead a delegation that includes a number of prominent gay athletes.

"We want to see Putin standing alone," Goltsman says. 

Changing Neighborhood

In the post-Soviet arena, there is cautious optimism that the movement will continue to gain strength even once the Olympics are over.

Moldova this year held its first sanctioned pride parades, and became the first former republic to team up with the "It Gets Better" video campaign targeting LGBT youth. Amnesty International has launched a letter-writing campaign in support of a Belarusian gay activist, Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who was beaten by police.

And there is slow progress in Russia as well. The "It Gets Better" campaign has launched a special program sending translated messages of support to Russia ahead of the Sochi Games. And several American filmmakers -- including director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black -- attended the recent Side by Side LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg, despite five bomb threats and hostile attacks by Russian nationalists.

Sasha Semyonova is the communications director for the Petersburg-based group Vykhod, or Coming Out. She says the wave of global attention has been a boon to the Russian LGBT movement.

But what heartens her most, she says as she looks forward to the year ahead, is that more and more straight, nonpolitical Russians are beginning to understand that LGBT rights are just part of a wider struggle for basic human rights in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"Most people used to be passive, and never expressed the desire to defend their rights -- many, to the contrary, said that that the actions of activists was harmful to them," says Semyonova. "But now, thanks to the worsening situation and attacks, more and more members of society are acknowledging that it's important to fight for their rights."

Daisy Sindelar

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