Groups Look to Hollywood to Lead the Charge Against Russia's Anti-LGBT Laws

Human rights groups look to entertainment community to speak out against 'homosexual propaganda' ban.

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Television personality and pageant host Andy Cohen says he will not host the Miss Universe Pageant in Russia because of the country's anti-gay laws.

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Since Russia's passage of a ban on "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," among other laws deemed discriminatory by the human rights community, LGBT activists have been debating how to most effectively protest Russia's crackdown on its gay community — whether they should pour out Stoli vodka, boycott the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, or whether Olympic corporate sponsors should take a stand on the laws.

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Andy Cohen, an openly gay Bravo executive and host of its show "Watch What Happens," took a stand of his own. Wednesday, he told E! News he would be declining his Miss Universe Pageant hosting gig in Moscow, as Russia's "discriminatory policies make it unsafe for the gays who live there and gays coming to work or visit." The announcement was met with praise by LGBT activists, and is also a signal to how Hollywood could lead the charge against the crackdown.

"I think organizations like Miss Universe have to question how safe they are in going, how safe their production team is in going," GLAAD national spokesperson Omar Sharif Jr. says. A Change.org petition, now with more than 25,000 signatures, has been started for Miss Universe to move its 2013 pageant.

Within U.S. borders, the entertainment industry has been widely credited for the recent strides in LGBT equality, with, perhaps most famously, Vice President Joe Biden citing TV show "Will and Grace" for "educating the American public" on gay rights.

"This industry specifically has been a leader in helping to influence the way people think about LGBT people and issues," Human Rights Campaign Communications Director Michael Cole-Schwartz says. "Given [the industry's] good track record, I think that [it's] poised to continue being leaders in pointing out how awful this Russian law is."

Boycotts are not necessarily the only or even the best way to address the issue, activists say. Sharif argues that celebrities could make as just much of an impact, if not more, by traveling to Russia for premieres and other business, and speaking out about its laws. "If you're actually allies in the community, go there and take a stand," he says, adding that by doing so, they can bring more attention to the issue, both here and in Russia.

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Sports figures are already embracing this model. Openly gay ice skater Johnny Weir said he will attend the Sochi Olympics at the risk of being arrested, and Athlete Ally, an LGBT group that works specifically in the sports community, has encouraged other athletes to do likewise. (The U.S. Olympic Committee is now urging athletes to "comply" with Russian law.)

Entertainers are beginning follow suit, such as actress Tilda Swinton, who posed in front Moscow's Saint Basil's Cathedral with a rainbow flag, and pop stars Lady Gaga and Madonna, who both face fines from the Russian government for performances in the country during which they vocalized their support of Russia's LGBT community. Tony-winning actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein and Oscar-winning writer/producer Dustin Lance Black also have attracted attention to the issue, with op-eds in the New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, respectively.

"I think we're starting to see this bubble up as we talk about this more," Cole-Schwartz says.

HRC President Chad Griffin has sent letters to the Motion Picture Association of America and six major studio heads, imploring them to advocate for the repeal of the Russian laws. The HRC also pressed NBCUniversal to give attention to the issue in the network's ramping-up Olympic coverage.

But groups are also encouraging Hollywood to take on a more a grass-roots approach to the issue, with GLAAD urging celebrities – with their massive and global fan followings – to use social media to speak out against the laws.

"Tweet, tweet, tweet! Get through and let your positions be heard," Sharif says, explaining that the education level about the laws, even within Russia, is low. Through Twitter and other platforms, celebrities can make their views heard even past government censors, he says, and that the increased attention stateside also puts pressure on the Russian government.