A senior State Department official on Wednesday said the U.S. government has grown increasingly concerned about anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in Russia.
Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, spoke to the Washington Blade in an interview at her Foggy Bottom office hours after the Russian Duma unanimously approved a bill that would ban foreign same-sex couples and single people from nations that allow same-sex marriage from adopting Russian children. The U.S. LGBT group All Out earlier on Wednesday said authorities fined Coming Out St. Petersburg, a Russian LGBT advocacy group, 500,000 rubles ($15,000) under a “foreign agent” law the Kremlin is using to sue gay rights organizations.
The Russian Duma on June 11 passed a separate measure that would ban the “promotion of homosexuality” to minors.
The State Department in January criticized Russian lawmakers who supported the bill on its first reading.
“We are absolutely against any legislation that prohibits same-sex consensual relations and we speak out against it and so it’s a consistent position,” Zeya said. “We’re very concerned by the overall direction in Russia. It is something that we have communicated directly to the Russian government.”
Two men allegedly sodomized Vladislav Tornovoi with empty beer bottles and set his body on fire near Volgograd on May 10 after he reportedly came out to them as gay. Authorities on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East said three men stabbed and trampled a gay man to death a few weeks later before they set his car on fire with his body inside.
Authorities on May 24 arrested Nikokai Alekseev, co-founder of Moscow Pride, and 29 other LGBT activists who tried to hold a Pride celebration outside Moscow City Hall. Police also arrested dozens of advocates who tried to stage a kiss-in outside the Duma before lawmakers approved the “promotion of homosexuality” to minors measure.
Zeya declined to say whether President Obama raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting on Monday at the annual G-8 summit that took place in Northern Ireland.
Zeya: State Department seeks to reach “directly at grassroots”
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 proclaimed “gay rights are human rights” during a landmark speech she gave in Geneva to commemorate International Human Rights Day. Obama on the same day issued a presidential memorandum that directed government agencies that implement American foreign policy to promote LGBT rights in the countries in which they work.
In addition to talking about Russia, Zeya noted to the Blade the Global Equality Fund — a public-private partnership that includes Finland, Iceland and the John Evans Foundation founded by C-SPAN co-founder John Evans — has spent more than $4 million in 25 countries since its 2011 inception to directly support activists and underrepresented groups. The USAID-backed LGBT Global Development Partnership with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute, the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency and other groups will contribute $11 million over the next four years to advocacy groups in Honduras and other developing countries.
30 Colombian LGBT rights activists attended the partnership’s first training that took place in Bogotá, Colombia, from May 29-June 2.
“It’s about reaching directly at the grassroots in the countries concerned,” Zeya said. “We still have a situation where nearly 80 countries have laws prohibiting or basically making homosexuality illegal. This is an uphill battle that we have to continue to fight and we’re looking to bring more partners in on this so you can’t say this is exclusively an American agenda or a U.S. government agenda, but in fact this is a common effort to support universal rights and equality.”
Zeya also spoke to the Blade immediately after Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at Gays and Lesbians In Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA)’s annual Pride event at which Georgia Congressman John Lewis and National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling spoke. Obama earlier in the day specifically mentioned gays and lesbians during a speech he delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
“It shows the president’s commitment to LGBT equality, but also that we view LGBT rights as just part of universal rights as the secretary (Kerry) said,” Zeya said. “We heard that in a very compelling and heartfelt way from Sec. Kerry that this has been a life-long commitment and he’s committed to this struggle. He recognizes how far we’ve come and in some ways how shocking some of the past sort of debate on this issue, but he’s totally committed to going forward so I think we have a real synergy between both the president and the secretary in determination to move ahead.”