President Obama sharply criticized Russia for its treatment of gays and lesbians in the first public condemnation from a world leader of the country’s newly-enacted law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”
Speaking on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno Tuesday, Obama said he had “no patience” for countries that enforce policies intended to harm or intimidate people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The critique was one of many the president had for his Russian couterpart, Vladimir Putin, and preceded an announcement Wednesday that the two leaders would not be meeting as scheduled over tensions related to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
“I have been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you’re 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 Obama, who has become a strong voice for gay rights over the course of his presidential terms. “One of the things 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. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America.”
Obama’s comments came in response to a pointed question from host Jay Leno, who compared Russia’s stance on gays to when Nazi Germany would “round up the Jews.”
“Let’s round up the gays,” said Leno. “It’s starts with that. You round up people who you don’t like.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin in June signed into law a contentious provision that effectively makes homosexuality illegal. Since then, calls have spread for boycotts of Russian commodities and of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, as reports emerge of escalating brutality against LGBT people in Russia. The country’s sports minister last week said the anti-gay law would be enforced during the Olympics, despite assurances from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that there would be no discrimination against gay athletes or spectators.
Obama suggested the law contradicted the “Olympic spirit” in a way that, if enforced, could affect Russia’s success in hosting the Games.
“I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure that the Olympics work,” said Obama. “I think that they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They are athletes. They are there to compete.”
No other world leader has yet taken so strong a stand against Russia’s draconian law, despite pleas from a number of high-profile gay rights advocates. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he opposed the measure when it was under consideration in December, but has not spoken out against it since. British broadcaster Stephen Fry on Wednesday published an open letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the IOC, calling on them to strip Russia of next year’s Olympics. And later in the day, reports Towleroad, the IOC will receive a petition with more than 300,000 signatures demanding that the committee condemn Russia’s laws and guarantee protection for all visitors and athletes.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin applauded Obama’s remarks, but noted that the problem extends beyond the Olympics.
“At the very least, this heinous law denies LGBT people in Russia the slightest shred of dignity and humanity,” said Griffin in a statement. “People’s lives are at stake thanks to this state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia that reaches the highest levels of Russian government. President Obama is right to be concerned as the Olympic Games in Sochi draw near–not just for Americans traveling to Russia, but for those who must endure the law long after the last medal is won.”