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A Test for Gay Rights in Sochi

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The New Yorker, Richard Socarides
|
August 8, 2013
Issues: 

“Something that shocked me about Russia—and I’m surprised this is not a huge story,” Jay Leno said to President Barack Obama on Tuesday night. The thing that shocked him there was a new law criminalizing what has been called “homosexual propaganda.” The law is intentionally vague in a way that may make it easy to enforce against a wide range of speech and activity. As Leno put it, “Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law.” He added, “I mean, why is not more of the world outraged at this?”

Obama answered by saying, in effect, that he was outraged: “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.” But there was also no mistaking that this is now becoming what Leno called a huge story.

Leno: Do you think it will affect the Olympics?

Obama: 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. 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.

(Applause.)

Leno: Good enough for me.

The next morning, the White House announced that President Obama would not meet with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, as part of the G20 summit. There are other issues—Edward Snowden’s sojourn in Moscow among them. But Obama had put gay rights and the Winter Olympics, to be held next February in Sochi, Russia, on the agenda.