September 4, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
High hopes as Obama prepares to meet with Russian gay activists
Citizens Metal, Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama is set to meet with LGBT groups in Russia on Friday. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

President Obama is set to meet with a group of human rights advocates in Russia on Friday, including representatives of LGBT rights groups and many observers are hopeful that he will take the opportunity to express continued opposition to the country’s controversial anti-gay propaganda law.

During a stopover in Stockholm on Wednesday, Obama expressed solidarity with Sweden during opening remarks at a news conference by saying both the Nordic country and the United States have a shared belief in equality under the law, including for gay citizens.

“We share a belief in the dignity and equality of every human being; that our daughters deserve the same opportunities as our sons; that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must be treated equally under the law; that our societies are strengthened and not weakened by diversity,” Obama said.

Obama restated his support for LGBT equality as he prepared to meet with Russian human rights groups and LGBT groups during his visit to St. Petersburg for the annual G-20 summit.

A White House official told the Washington Blade that Obama intends to meet with “civil society representatives” during his trip on Friday and LGBT groups were invited to the meeting.

“The president will meet with Russian civil society leaders to discuss the important role civil society plays in promoting human rights and tolerance,” the official said. “Invited are representatives from groups supporting human rights, the environment, free media, and LGBT rights, among others.”

Obama meets with these activists — as well as leaders from G-20 countries — at a time when he’s pushing for military engagement in Syria over the use of the chemical weapons in the country. That issue will likely play a large role in the discussions — at least with leaders from G-20 nations.

But LGBT advocates who work on international issues told the Washington Blade the meeting with human rights activists provides a stage to draw attention to the condition of human rights in Russia, including the situation for LGBT people.

Innokenty “Kes” Grekov, an associate with the international group Human Rights First who covers Russia, said the administration initiated the meeting under pressure from U.S. groups.

“I think the president will articulate his Russia policy to the activists and express solidarity and gratitude for their work, once again affirming that Russia’s international human rights obligation, and its own constitution, must be protected and democracy advanced,” Grekov said.

Grekov predicted that Russian gay rights activists wouldn’t bring up anything in the meeting that they wouldn’t bring up in a meeting with their own President Vladimir Putin. Further, Grekov said he thinks they’ll tell Obama to resist calls to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi — an idea that he already says he opposes.

“The activists scheduled to meet with Obama work on different issues, and gay rights will be discussed in the context of a wider human rights backslide in Russia,” Grekov added.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, said Obama’s meeting with gay rights activists is a monumental development and a potential instrument for change.

“It sends a message of solidarity, and I think it provides an opportunity for the president to connect directly with activists and the issues,” Bromley said. “He did that very effectively on the last trip to Africa, I thought, where he really spoke in a very personal, humble, firm way about these issues being serious human rights concerns.”

Grekov said Obama addressed a group of civil society representatives during a previous trip to Russia in 2009 while in Moscow for a bilateral summit. While some of those groups may have been working on gay issues as part of a larger portfolio, Grekov said he doesn’t remember any “LGBT-only” group taking part in the discussion.

Activists say the meeting is also an opportunity for Obama to step up U.S. opposition to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, which bans pro-gay propaganda to minors. The president already expressed opposition to the measure during a news conference in August when he said no one is “more than offended than me” over it.

Bromley said he hopes Obama will speak in Russia about the law “in a rather direct way” to highlight that the law actually harms the children that it intends to protect.

“The law was passed ostensibly to protect children,” Bromley said. “We know from recent evidence here in the United States and around the world that children are actually harmed by these sorts of laws, that they encourage bullying, they encourage some of the taunting and humiliation that leads to violence and suicide. I hope that he would speak directly to the fact that these laws are not the way to protect children.”

Grekov expressed a similar sentiment in terms of asking Obama to continue engaging with Russia, while being more vocal about the anti-gay law as well as issues facing LGBT advocates in Russia.

“He’s taking a stance by meeting with civil society and expressing solidarity, we’d like him to carry that message to the Russian president and the Russian media, too,” Grekov said. “Because the law has provisions affecting foreigners, President Obama and the State Department need to press the Russian authorities to clarify what they mean by ‘propaganda,’ because without understanding of the law it will be impossible for foreign visitors to ‘obey the law.’”

Obama is set to engage with human rights activists in Russia after the group Human Rights First published a report last week documenting abuses under the Russia LGBT law, titled “Convenient Targets,” that calls on the Obama administration to take more action.

Among the potential actions cited in the report are meeting with human rights activists, as Obama is set to do. Additionally, the report calls on the administration to direct the State Department to seek clarification on the anti-“propaganda” law because of its vague wording; lead a multilateral coalition to oppose discrimination and violence against LGBT people; and call for leadership from the U.S. Olympic Committee in opposing the law.

Putin denies Russia has anti-gay law

The anonymous White House official also said while there is currently no plan for a formal bilateral meeting with President Putin of Russia, the administration expects the two presidents to have an opportunity to speak in between meetings of the G-20. Last month, Obama cancelled a formal bilateral meeting planned with Putin, in part, as an administration official said, because of the anti-LGBT environment in Russia.

In an extensive interview published by the Associated Press on Wednesday, Putin said he has no problem with Obama meeting with human rights leaders and acknowledged it was part of U.S. diplomatic policy.

“On the contrary, we welcome it, so that there will be full understanding of whatever’s going on in our society, Putin was quoted as saying. “Of course it would be very good if the diplomatic service, the embassy, the special services, gave a full and objective picture of the state of Russian society, and not just look at it from one angle.”

Putin also said he doesn’t think the law will play a negative role during the upcoming Olympics as he denied that Russia has such a law “targeting people of nontraditional sexual orientation.”

“So you just said that, and you’ve created illusions among millions of viewers that we have these laws,” Putin said. “In Russia there are no such laws. In Russia there is a law forbidding propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation among minors. That’s a totally different thing.”

The Russian president reportedly said that gay people in Russia have equal access to the workplace and their achievements are rewarded by the government with “prizes, medals, decorations.”

Putin further is quoted as saying the United States has its own work to do in advancing gay rights, saying being gay is a crime in some parts of the country, so the United States isn’t in a position to criticize other countries.

“You are aware, for example, that in several states, nontraditional sexual orientation is still considered a crime,” Putin reportedly said. “In particular, Oklahoma and Texas, I was told — maybe the people who told me that were wrong, but you check. And if that’s actually true, then it’s very strange that those who are trying to teach us aren’t an example worthy of imitation. And several NGOs have presented statistics that affirm that in certain American firms, people of nontraditional sexual orientation are discriminated against in terms of wages.”

No laws in Oklahoma or Texas criminalize homosexuality, although those states do have laws prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriage. Any state law prohibiting same-sex relations in those states would have been struck down by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

Grekov said in a statement following the interview that Putin is right that gay people enjoy the same rights and economic opportunities as everyone else, but maintained there are still problems.

“What Putin didn’t say is that Russia’s constitutional protections from discrimination for all have not translated in the day-to-day lives of Russia’s LGBT community, which continues to face intolerance and whose freedoms can be undermined through the recently adopted ‘propaganda’ law,” Grekov said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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