Syria, Sochi & Gay Rights at the G20 Summit


Leaders of the world’s top economies meet in St. Petersburg this week for the G20 Summit and global economic recovery is on top of the agenda. The crisis in Syria, however, overshadows the gathering, with Obama and Putin circling each other and Hollande and Xi on their respective corners.

Gay rights advocates were hoping President Obama would put the spotlight on Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Human Rights First (HRF), an advocacy organization that “challenges America to live up to its ideals,” released a report last week, which documents the violent crackdown on the LGBT community in Russia, traces the evolution of the country’s homophobic laws, and explains the broader context that spurred Putin’s escalating repression of dissent and personal freedoms. The report also recommends actions Mr. Obama can take while in St. Petersburg.

“It is moments like this that test U.S. leadership and commitment to human rights,” argues Innokenty Grekov, author of the HRF report. “President Obama has pledged leadership on LGBT rights and that leadership is needed now.”

Indeed, Mr. Obama, along with former and current Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have advanced the cause of human rights for gay and transgender people worldwide. It is highly unlikely, however, that LGBT rights, much less the 2014 winter games, will be at the forefront in St. Petersburg. The use of chemical weapons in the murder of more than 1,400 innocent civilians, including hundreds of children, is more urgent. President Obama and his team will understandably focus on Syria and the economic concerns behind the summit.

Buzzfeed does report that Mr. Obama has invited representatives of LGBT groups to join a scheduled meeting with other Russian civil society activists. While the human rights advocates’ presence would no doubt annoy and embarrass Mr. Putin, the issue of the Winter Olympics will be one of many other concerns NGOs will put before President Obama.

It can be argued that it is strategic not to beleaguer the point on Sochi for now and avoid backlash when LGBT rights advocates are perceived or portrayed as insensitive to the horrific carnage in Damascus.

This is not to say that LGBT lives are of lesser value. They are of equal worth to any other, deserving of the same dignity and fundamental rights. In a way, gay and transgender people in Russia and so many other countries that oppress sexual minorities die a slower death, decimated one at a time through savage murder, disease, and suicide. The magnitude of this massacre is not readily apparent and does not elicit outrage.

The Syrian people, the Russian LGBT community, and sexual minorities worldwide do share one horrible thing in common. They are mere objects to many of their leaders and governments, disposable in the quest for power and control.

So while Sochi might take a back seat in St. Petersburg this week, LGBT rights are human rights and the fight for human rights will continue.

Reposted on the Huffington Post.