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Obama Blasts Russian Anti-Gay Law

by David-Elijah Nahmod
Thursday Aug 8, 2013

President Barack Obama this week weighed in on Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, saying that he has "no patience" for countries that treat gays in ways that are harmful.

The comments came as condemnation of Russia's new anti-gay law continues to escalate around the world as activists, athletes, and others count down to February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The president made his remarks in front of a national television audience Tuesday, August 6 during an appearance on NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Obama was responding to Leno's question about how shocked he was at the sudden turn against gays in Russia.

"I mean, this seems like Germany," Leno said, according to a White House transcript. "Let's round up the Jews, let's round up the gays, let's round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that. You round up people who you don't - I mean, why is not more of the world outraged at this?"

"Well, I've been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people's basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country," Obama said. "And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."

Obama also mentioned his recent trip to Africa, where he said some countries persecute gays.

"But one of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that's what we stand for," the president said. "And I believe that that's a precept that's not unique to America, that's something that should apply everywhere."

On Wednesday, the White House announced that Obama was canceling a planned summit with Putin in part because of the lack of progress on issues including human rights and civil society and the country's anti-gay crackdown.

Efforts to bring attention to Russia's anti-gay propaganda law have intensified among opponents. Protesters have held two demonstrations in recent days in San Francisco, where support was shown for LGBT Russians who are directly affected by the law that went into effect last month.

The law includes stiff fines and jail time for Russian citizens who "propagate" homosexuality to minors. This could include hand-holding and other public displays of affection, and broadcasting positive news stories about LGBT people. Putin claims that he's not homophobic, and that he considered it his duty to protect the rights of sexual minorities.

The law also applies to visitors, Russian government officials have reportedly stated, including athletes and visitors to next year's Olympics.

Celebrities are speaking out. Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton recently posed in front of the Kremlin holding a rainbow flag in a photo that went viral. On Tuesday, gay ""Star Trek star George Takei, who with his family was sent to an internment camp during World War II, came out in support of moving next year's Olympic Games to Canada.

"The IOC must do the right thing, protect its athletes and the fans, and move the 2014 Winter Olympics out of Russia," Takei wrote on his blog.

Locally, activists have continued to call out the Russian government and Putin, who signed the law last month. On Tuesday, August 6, activists gathered in front of San Francisco City Hall, where they poured vodka onto the street. The group, including activists Michael Petrelis and Bill Wilson, wanted Mayor Ed Lee to agree not to serve Russian products at city functions.

Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said in an email that, "Mayor Lee is deeply concerned and troubled about the discriminatory legislation and anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia and he is interested in actions that can help the LGBT community there."

Last Saturday, August 3, about 75 people gathered in front of the Russian Consulate at 2790 Green Street in Pacific Heights to express solidarity with their Russian counterparts, and to put pressure on Russia to repeal the new law and treat its LGBT citizens with dignity.

"I'm here because I don't want them to beat us up," said 7-year-old Bobby McKenzie, who attended the rally with his dads, Ray McKenzie and Matt Homier.

"We're here to stand up for those who can't speak," said the elder McKenzie. "And we're here to teach our son about standing up for what's right."

Some of those present felt that the Saturday rally wasn't going to accomplish anything.

"The demonstration is on Saturday, and the embassy is closed," said longtime activist Mark Kliem, onetime producer of "Lavender Lounge," a gay public access show. "They won't even know we're here. And I feel that pickets don't work anymore because they're no longer shocking. We have to do things that are effective and actually make change. We need to hold a press conference or town hall meeting with the Russian ambassador. Let's convince Coca-Cola to put rainbow flags on the cans they export to Russia."

Many in the crowd agreed with Kliem's position and looked at Saturday's action as a starting point.

"This is the beginning of Russia's decent into fascism," said an angry and impassioned Cleve Jones. "It's very similar to what happened in Germany during the 1930s. This time the first victims are us, but we will not be the last. Hitler tried this already, but no. Never again!"

The crowd applauded Jones repeatedly during his speech. The longtime activist and friend of the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk addressed the Stoli boycott, the Latvian-based company which produces Russian beer and vodka. As the Bay Area Reporter reported last week, some gay bars, and a few straight bars, are refusing to serve Stoli products. Stoli has issued a statement claiming it is not a Russian company and points to its long record of sponsoring Pride parades.

Bar Reverses Course

The bar protest appears to be short-lived, at least in San Francisco. Moby Dick, a popular gay bar on 18th Street in the Castro, has called off its participation in the Stoli boycott.

"Moby Dick will no longer boycott Stoli," owner Joe Cappelletti said in a statement. "A boycott of Stoli's does not directly impact the Russian government. In regards to SPI, Stoli's parent company, they've been a longtime supporter of the LGBT community worldwide."

Jones, speaking at Saturday's rally, took a different view. "If you don't understand that Stoli is a Russian company, please go back and do your online research. Rosa Parks, Hyatt Hotels, boycotts work," he said, referring to the civil rights icon and more recent efforts by local labor unions to boycott the hotel chain.

Other speakers included gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who was also a close friend of Milk's.

"There's so much suffering," Ammiano said. "We have to talk about what happens when we don't talk about social justice issues."

Gay San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener was at the rally, along with his colleague, board President David Chiu, an ally.

Wiener spoke of his Russian-Jewish heritage, and told the crowd about his family members who immigrated to the United States a century ago to escape Russian pogroms.

"This is such an important reminder," Wiener said. "While we have victories around marriage equality, we can't forget that our own people are being killed in Russia. Russia killed Jews before Germany did."

Chiu said that America is watching the unfolding debate, which has received national media attention.

"I want to say how very sorry I am," said Chiu. "It's not just LGBT Americans who are watching, there are straight Americans who are watching. Hate against one is hate against all."

It was clear that the Saturday rally was only the beginning, as many called for rallying the troops.

"Call upon the rest of the world to join us," said longtime activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca. "We can't do it alone. We depend on outrage."

"Where the hell is everyone else?" asked Dennis Dentoni. "Where the hell is the United Nations?"

As protester Trey Allen led the crowd in a spirited chant of "Hey hey, ho ho, anti-gay laws have got to go," many demonstrators affixed their signs to the consulate's front gate. Some of the signs were in English, some were in Russian.

"Can you hear me in there," shouted Allen. "Harvey Milk came from SF, bitches! We'll be back!"

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