President Obama said Tuesday (August 6) that countries that participate in the Olympics “wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently” during the 2014 Olympics in Russia. And though his other remarks suggested he would not likely push for any boycott of the winter games next February, the White House on Wednesday issued a statement indicating President Obama was canceling his one-on-one meeting with the Russian president during next month’s G-20 summit. The statement hinted at a wide variety of reasons, including issues of “human rights and civil society” issues. An administration official said the “human rights and civil society” reference included recent actions taken against the LGBT community in Russia.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin has asked the NBC Universal network, which is providing television coverage of the Olympics to U.S. viewers, to “expose this inhumane and unjust law to the millions of American viewers who will tune in to watch the Games.”
According to a number of reports, including from ESPN and the Los Angeles Times, Vitaly Mutgo, sports minister for the Putin administration, told reporters the Russian government would enforce its new laws during the Olympics.
“An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” ESPN quoted Mutko as saying in an interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.” The Times said foreign visitors who violate the law can be fined up to $3,000, jailed for 15 days, deported, and denied re-entry into Russia.
The laws, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June and July, prohibit the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors,” any public displays of affection by same-sex couples and public events related to LGBT people, and prohibit allowing couples from countries where marriage equality is law to adopt children from Russia. One law allows authorities to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being gay or pro-gay.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a statement July 26, saying it had received “assurances” from “the highest level of government in Russia” that the new all “will not affect those attending or taking part” in the Winter Olympics in February in Sochi, a city of more than 340,000 people situated on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, a thousand miles south of Moscow.
“The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation,” said the statement. “The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle.”
Tonight Show host Jay Leno posed his question to the president after first asking him several questions about the U.S.’s recent global travel warning and the government’s much-criticized intelligence-gathering operation. That led to a discussion of the intelligence leaks by computer analyst Edward Snowden who was recently given one year of political asylum in Russia.
“I was disappointed because, even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them,” said President Obama, “traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a law-breaker or an alleged law-breaker in their country, we evaluate it and we try to work with them. They didn’t do that with us.”
President Obama said he would be attending the economic summit of world leaders, meeting in St. Petersburg September 5-6. He said he was going because “the G-20 summit is the main forum where we talk about the economy, the world economy….”
“So, it’s not something unique to Russia. They’re hosting it this year, but it’s important for us, as the leading economy in the world, to make sure that we’re there,” said Obama. (However, Wednesday morning, the White House issued a statement saying it was canceling its one-on-one meeting with Putin during the summit. The statement said, “there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September.” See more below.)
That’s when Leno noted “something that shocked me about Russia.”
“I’m surprised this is not a huge story,” he said. “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,” said Leno. “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,” said President Obama. “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.
“Now, what’s happening in Russia is not unique,” he continued. “When I traveled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians. And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes.”
When Obama traveled to Africa in June, the U.S. Supreme Court had just issued its decisions striking down a federal law that barred the government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples. Reporters asked him about those decisions and Obama, at a press conference with the president of Senegal, which outlaws sex between same-sex partners, called them a “victory for American democracy.”
“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” said President Obama June 27.
He reiterated that view on the Tonight Show:
“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,” said the president. “And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere.”
Leno asked President Obama whether he thinks the anti-gay law “will affect the Olympics.”
“I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently,” said Obama. “They’re athletes, they’re there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
On Wednesday (August 7), the White House issued a statement, saying that while the U.S. and Russia have made progress on many fronts, “given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.”
The statement noted that “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
“Our cooperation on these issues remains a priority for the United States,” said the statement, “so on Friday, August 9, Secretaries Hagel and Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts in a 2+2 format in Washington to discuss how we can best make progress moving forward on the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship.”
HRC issued a statement saying it was pleased with both President Obama’s remarks on the Tonight Show, “especially with the news this morning that he would be cancelling his trip to Moscow – citing a number of issues to include human rights.” HRC also stated that the IOC should obtain an “ironcld written assurance” from President Putin that “foreigners will be exempt from [Russia’s] repressive laws….”
“But more importantly,” said the statement from HRC’s Griffin, “they should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics. Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”