Problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship are many, including missile defense, nuclear disarmament, Syria and Edward Snowden. When President Barack Obama appeared on Jay Leno’s show recently, he addressed another issue that should be included on the list of infractions: Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Official anti-gay harassment, which had been occurring for years, was codified in June when the Russian parliament passed, and President Vladimir Putin signed, a national law prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The law criminalized advocacy for equal rights for LGBT individuals, gay-pride parades, and any distribution of information about the gay and lesbian community to minors.
President Obama rightly condemned the law as violating “basic morality.”
Jay Leno deserves praise for raising the issue. He told the president, “Something that shocked me about Russia. Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: Let’s round up the Jews. Let’s round up the gays. Let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that.”
Leno’s only slip was with the analogy. The apt comparison is not Nazi Germany, but the former Soviet Union. No one should suggest Russia is persecuting or rounding up gays like the Nazis did with Jews (and homosexuals, among others). But it is obvious that Russia is oppressing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in a manner similar to the ways in which the Soviet Union once oppressed the Jewish community.
Why were Soviet Jews sent to the gulag? It wasn’t just for being Jews — low-key observance in the privacy of their homes usually went unpunished — but there was a price to be paid for being Jewish in public or encouraging others to take pride in their Judaism.
While gays and lesbians in Russia are not being explicitly punished for their identity — the Soviet-era law that made gay sex a crime was officially repealed in 1993 — the violent response to protests against the new anti-gay propaganda law shows that authorities have repeatedly turned a blind eye to, and even encouraged, anti-gay violence.
The disturbing similarities between Russian oppression of the LGBT community and of Soviet Jewry should instruct us how to respond. The Soviet Jewry movement was a long-fought human rights campaign, a massive and sustained public protest, combined with action by Congress and the Executive Branch.
The grassroots response is already beginning. Civil society organizations, both Russian and international, are discussing coordinated and broad advocacy campaigns in response to the anti-gay legislation, and there have been a flurry of opinion pieces and editorials on the subject in U.S. newspapers.
Government action should be developed in tandem. President Obama’s criticism followed several statements from administration officials. Such statements should ensure that anti-gay discrimination remains on the U.S-Russia bilateral agenda until Russia takes corrective action.
It will take more than just words. The 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment linked favorable trade status to the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. We need a new Jackson-Vanik to convince Russia that steps backward on basic human rights will be met with strong repercussions.
We know the Russian government is sensitive to congressional actions that impact its image, as shown in its sharp reaction to the Magnitsky Act. After Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer for an American investment company, was wrongly imprisoned in 2009 and killed through medical neglect, Congress legislated sanctions on Russian officials involved in persecuting him. While having limited practical impact, the Magnitsky law hit politically sensitive areas and named and shamed individuals.
A similar approach could be taken against Russian officials responsible for persecuting LGBT individuals and advocates.
Demonstrating solidarity with the LGBT community at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi would be another excellent means of protesting anti-gay discrimination. We should not, however, support an Olympic boycott similar to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That achieved nothing besides depriving our athletes the chance to compete.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a commitment to fight anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews engendered some of the foundational human rights instruments. Our community knows that by safeguarding Jewish rights, we advance the cause of rights for everyone. Taking bold action for the rights of LGBT communities to live in security and dignity will promote human rights for all.
The Soviet Jewry movement provides both a model and inspiration. We organized. We acted. We persevered. And we won. Today, we should do no less.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet.