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Should Russia pay a price for its anti-gay laws?
Vladimir Putin recently signed tough laws targeting homosexuals. Olympics boycott, anyone?
 
Vladimir Putin, no stranger to sexualized P.R. campaigns, has banned 'gay propaganda.'
Vladimir Putin, no stranger to sexualized P.R. campaigns, has banned 'gay propaganda.' RIA NOVOSTI/Reuters/Corbis

The United States and other Western nations appear to be entering something of a golden age for gay rights. Russia, however, is going in the opposite direction.

On June 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans "gay propaganda." The new law prohibits positive talk about homosexuality or "non-traditional sex relations" — read: Gay marriage — directed toward minors, whether it be through the media, on the internet, or in advertising. Gay-pride rallies are banned, too. Violators of the law face hefty fines, and foreigners found gay-propagandizing can be jailed for two weeks and then deported.

A few days later, on July 3, Putin signed legislation barring foreign same-sex couples from adopting Russian children, as well as single people and unmarried couples in countries that allow gay marriage.

What's going on in Russia? Homosexuality hasn't been a criminal offense in the country since 1993, but it's still pretty unpopular in the largely Orthodox Christian nation. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, lauded the ban Sunday, saying that the growing recognition of same-sex marriage around the world is "a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse," and that "people are choosing a path of self-destruction."

Recent polling from the All-Russian Public Opinion Center (VTSIOM) shows that 88 percent of Russians support the new law, and a majority, 54 percent, said that homosexuality should be banned and subject to criminal liabilities.

Putin is tapping into an "intolerance towards lesbians and gay men left over from the Soviet period," says Richard Mole at the London School of Economics and Political Science. LGTB activists also happen to be some of Putin's biggest and most vocal critics, so the president has "been able to use gay rights as a lightening rod to divert attention from political corruption and a weakening economy, while at the same time curtailing the civil rights of some of his most strident political opponents," says Mole.

Putin "has declared war on homosexuals," says Harvey Fierstein in The New York Times, and "so far, the world has mostly been silent." Scapegoating gays and lesbians to shore up his domestic support is "taken straight from the Nazi playbook," Fierstein continues, and the world can't sit by and watch this happen.

With Russia about to hold the Winter Games in Sochi, the country is open to pressure. American and world leaders must speak out against Mr. Putin's attacks and the violence they foster. The Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott.

In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler's campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance. [New York Times]

"Putin's anti-gay pogrom" does need a strong global response, says Dan Savage at Seattle's The Stranger, who not only backs boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics, but a global boycott of Russian vodka.

If they're serving Russian Standard or Stolichnaya brand vodkas in the bars where you drink — gay or straight — ask to speak to the manager and ask them to drop those brands. If they won't, tell them you plan to drink someplace else. [Stranger]

A crippling vodka ban is a little far-fetched, but the International Olympic Committee has expressed some discomfort over the new laws. On July 17, the IOC issued a statement:

The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation... As you know, this legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi. As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators, and the media. [IOC]

The Olympics organization, however, suggested that Russia's gay-rights crackdown isn't really the group's business: "Wider political issues in the country are best dealt with by other international organizations more suited to this endeavor."

International pressure may not be the best solution, anyway, says the London School's Richard Mole. And since gay-rights activists can no longer try to change public hearts and minds through protest or internet/media campaigns, "sexual minorities in Russia will inevitably need to come up with different — less public, more personal — tactics for raising awareness."

In the long run, this may prove more productive. Research shows that it is more difficult for individuals to maintain negative stereotypes of sexual minorities when they are personally acquainted with gays and lesbians. However, according to a recent opinion poll, only 7 percent of Russians personally know someone who is LGBT — compared with over 50 percent in the U.S. If Russian gays and lesbians can find the courage to come out to their friends, families, and colleagues, this may help to chip away at the negative image of sexual minorities in Russian society that Putin has so far been able to use to his political advantage. [LSE]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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