Washington DC, November 15, 2013
Dear President Putin:
Like many of our generation, we have applauded Russia’s 20-year turn toward democracy, confident in the prospect it lays not only for closer relations between our countries, but for the freer and more prosperous future that the Russian people deserve. In that light, we write to express grave concern at recent legislation – signed by you into law, or otherwise under consideration in the Duma – that demonizes and discriminates against Russian citizens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
These laws are tearing apart the lives of Russian LGBT citizens and their families. They also impact Russian and foreign citizens, organizations and businesses that want the best for your country, and that are committed to building partnerships that are in your interests.
The range of legislation to which we refer is broad; among other things, it restricts public gatherings; classifies as “foreign agents” those who receive funding from abroad; denies orphaned and abandoned children the opportunity to be brought up in families by individuals with the commitment, the resources, and the love needed to raise them; and makes it a crime to speak openly or provide information about homosexuality. We are also extremely concerned about pending legislation that threatens to remove children from same-sex parents – the homes they’ve known, the families they love.
These discriminatory, anti-LGBT laws call into question the democratic path that Russia ostensibly has chosen. They disregard the obligation carried by all democratic societies to respect and protect minority populations of any kind. And they deny not only the promise of equality under the law, but the fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and association that are core to any democratic system.
Some proponents of these laws have sought to justify them for the purpose of “protecting children.” These ideas are based on false “science,” deliberately erroneous claims, and clear bias. Homosexuality and pedophilia are not, in fact, related. Modern science and the medical establishment consider homosexuality as a statistically normal human sexual variation. Pedophilia, on the other hand, is a crime, and is not a factor of one’s sexual orientation.
We strongly support child protection legislation that penalizes inappropriate sexual conduct with minors. However, such legislation cannot single out one minority population, as Russia’s laws now do. By inaccurately placing pedophilia at the door of LGBT citizens, Russia’s laws harm rather than protect LGBT youth, and have a negative impact on broader non-discrimination efforts within society. Further, these laws create a climate of fear and repression that leaves LGBT children, and even those merely suspected of being so, vulnerable to physical and mental abuse, while substantially diminishing their educational and employment-related opportunities and achievements. In this manner, these laws are harmful to children and society in equal measure. They also provoke increased violence against LGBT Russian youth and adults, the rise of which should be a matter of concern to you, as President, as it is to us.
To date, the media has viewed Russia’s repressive laws largely through the prism of the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The reason for this is clear: the Olympic Charter proclaims that “…any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Russia’s new laws squarely defy the Charter; its role as host, while failing to amend or abrogate these laws, cheapens Olympic ideals.
However, concern about Russia’s laws is not limited to their inconsistency with Olympic principles – nor, indeed, to the narrow question of how Russia will treat LGBT foreigners who participate in or attend the Sochi Olympics. The fundamental question raised by Russia’s anti-LGBT course is why Russia treats its own LGBT citizens with such disregard for democratic principles – and why you and Russian legislators have chosen, as part of your legacy, to foster a climate of hostility toward LGBT people that has made those citizens so unwelcome on their own soil.
You have made public assurances that all visitors are welcome to Sochi, regardless of sexual orientation. These assurances, however, cannot be taken at face value without a more detailed understanding of how Russia’s anti-LGBT laws apply to a range of specific questions. For instance:
- Can Olympic athletes or spectators be arrested or otherwise sanctioned for wearing “Gay Pride” or similarly themed clothing or accessories at the Games, or clothing items/accessories containing an LGBT-related insignia?
- Can these same athletes or spectators sport officially licensed rainbow pins or other apparel from the 2012 London Summer Olympics?
- Can athletes or spectators carry Gay Pride flags?
- Should two individuals of the same sex either hold hands or kiss in public, would that be seen as contravening Russian law?
- What would happen should a person speak in favor of the equal treatment of LGBT persons – whether publicly or in what was intended to be a private conversation?
- Can a parent of an LGBT athlete – Russian or foreign – speak affirmatively of his/her child, including with reference to that athlete’s sexual orientation or gender identity, in pre- or post-competition interviews?
- Can athletes or spectators distribute pamphlets concerning the human rights of all individuals, including those in “non-traditional sexual relationships,” as a reflection of both their beliefs and their rights to freedoms of opinion, speech and expression?
- Can media coverage of the Games include examination of Russia’s discriminatory legal climate directed against LGBT people?
- Might a reporter asking questions related to the law be accused of violating the law?
- Would the public dissemination of same-sex attraction (e.g., through a gay or lesbian couple holding hands) by television, newspaper or internet potentially subject the media outlet to legal response by Russian authorities?
- Would capture and public dissemination of LGBT insignia by the media, including the internet, in the course of reporting on the Games (or subsequently), subject that outlet to legal response?
- Are private sector companies free to include same-sex couples in their advertising related to sponsorship of the Games? Are they permitted to include pro-LGBT messages of solidarity in their advertising?
- Would children who have been adopted by lesbian or gay individuals or couples be allowed to enter the country?
- Could a child be taken from a couple if that couple either was or appeared to be gay or lesbian?
- Is there a distinction in how any of these scenarios would be handled (a) within the Olympic Village, (b) in the broader Olympic security zones in and around Sochi, or (c) outside of those zones?
- Would the response to any of these questions differ depending on the citizenship of the individual(s)? Would foreign nationals be treated differently, inasmuch as the law specifies different penalties for foreigners?
To be clear, these questions deserve response before the Sochi Olympics, so that all of those who support the Olympics – whether athletes, spectators, sponsors, media, or prospective national delegation members – can have certainty as to how these laws might impact their participation, or indeed their prospective travel to Sochi. Importantly, however, these questions must be answered with respect not only to foreign visitors, but to Russia’s citizens as well. They also must be answered not only with respect to the specific period embraced by the Sochi Olympics, but thereafter.
We ask you, as President, to ensure that Russian officials clearly address, with a sense of urgency, each of the scenarios noted above. But we also ask that you take on the leadership role of pressing for these laws to be repealed in order that LGBT citizens of your country can enjoy the same rights and expectations as any of their heterosexual fellow citizens, and so as to rein in the hostility directed against LGBT Russians that these laws have entailed.
Finally, we ask that you address these questions with a sense of urgency, not only in view of the rapid approach of the Sochi Olympics, but with regard to the distraction that these laws pose to our shared interest in a broad and stable partnership between our countries.