President Obama has named three openly gay Americans to the delegation that will represent the United States in Sochi, Russia, next month at the 2014 Winter Olympics. The delegation is notable for another reason as well: for the first time since 2000 the U.S. won't send a president, vice president, first lady or former president.
Although the White House claims these moves are not a reflection of the pitiful state of U.S.-Russian relations, they clearly are. They underscore a series of recent rifts in the relationship, mostly due to the increasingly undemocratic policies of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.
Last June the Russian parliament, controlled by Putin and his party United Russia, passed a law 436-0 making it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships and to distribute material about ''non-traditional relations.'' Predictably this has led to increased violence against gays and a reluctance on the part of law enforcement to bring people that engage in such violence to justice. Groups in Russia such as "Occupy Pedophilia" are known to entrap gay men, humiliate them on camera, and then post the videos online.
While Ukraine was debating the merits of ditching its eastern neighbor, Russia, in favor of the European Union last fall, a group backed by wealthy Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, who has close ties to Putin, called homosexuality a "threat to national security."
Last week, Putin announced that the state news agency RIA Novosti, which has a reputation for more objective and balanced reporting than other mouthpieces of the Russian government, was being dissolved and merged with other state media outlets to create a new conglomerate. Fair enough. However, Putin then appointed homophobic television anchor Dmitriy Kiselyov to head it. Kiselyov has said publicly that the hearts of gays and lesbians who die should be buried or burned.
President Obama is right to poke Putin in the eye by sending to Sochi openly gay representatives, who in his spokeswoman's words, "represent the diversity that is the United States."
Russia's open discrimination of gays should be unacceptable to countries that pride themselves on liberty and equality such as the United States. The presidents of close European allies, such France and Germany, have announced that they will not attend the games. We can only hope that with such symbolic gestures comes improvement in the plight of gays in Russia and throughout the world.