Justin Timberlake will be bringing his 20/20 Experience world tour to Russia in 2014, as announced on his website Monday. The shows in St. Petersburg and Moscow next May will go on sale Saturday . The concerts mark Timberlake's first performances in Russia, but they also come at a time when Russia has faced increased international scrutiny due to anti-LGBT legislation it has passed that many humanitarian groups have called a human rights violation.
"Obviously our hope is that Justin will use his time in Russia as an opportunity to highlight and expose the horrible situation that the LGBT [community is] facing there," says Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Charles Joughin. Recent legislation passed by the Kremlin includes the prohibition of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and a ban of the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples abroad and unmarried individuals in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
With the legislation and the rise of hate crimes against the LGBT community in Russia, entertainers – particularly those outspoken about LGBT equality – have struggled with the decision to attend appearances in the country. The openly guy Bravo host Andy Cohen dropped out of his Miss Universe hosting gig, fearing his safety in Moscow, where the pageant was held. He was replaced with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts – also openly gay – who used the opportunity to blast the laws on Russian TV and press pageant co-owner Donald Trump regarding his views on same-sex marriage.
Cher recently revealed she had been asked to perform at 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in February, but turned down the offer because of the crackdown. Elton John, meanwhile, has vowed to go on with his concerts in Russia next month, despite boycott threats, being labeled "the devil's work" by a Russian Islamic leader, and calls that John wear a traditional Cossack uniform rather than his usual costume, which one group suggested was "homosexual propaganda."
I've got to go. And I've got to think about what I'm going to say very carefully. There's two avenues of thought: do you stop everyone going, ban all the artists coming in from Russia? But then you're really leaving the men and women who are gay and suffering under the anti-gay laws in an isolated situation. As a gay man, I can't leave those people on their own without going over there and supporting them. I don't know what's going to happen, but I've got to go.
The HRC and other human rights groups have reached out to the entertainment industry to speak out against the laws. The HRC has teamed up with a number of entertainers including Chelsea Handler, Ricky Martin and Jamie Lee Curtis, for its #LoveConquersHate campaign, which features celebs wearing T-shirts that say "Love Conquers Hate " in Russian.
However there is some concern with how such statements could play in Russia. "The problem is this law is so vague so it's very unclear as to what actions violate it," Joughin says. "It could be that tweeting, 'I support of LGBT equality,' while you're in Russia could violate this law."
Foreigners can face two weeks in jail for promoting "homosexual propaganda." Both Lady Gaga and Madonna came under fire for their stops in Russia, which attracted lawsuits and criticism from Russian officials. The two pop stars were accused of visa violations by the Russian government and Gaga's concert promoter was fined for "propaganda of alcohol consumption and homosexuality."
Timberlake – who nabbed the cover spot of the September issue of Russia's GQ – may not be an icon to the gay community in the way that Madonna, Gaga, John and Cher have become. Nevertheless, he has expressed his support of LGBT rights on social media and in interviews.
Much of the concern about the laws has been focused on the Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee – whose charter prohibits discrimination of any kind – has been notably soft spoken about the crackdown, even allowing a Russian state TV program that aired on Nov. 12 the use of its logo while warning of a "homosexualist invasion." LGBT activists are also worried about the attention given to the laws once the Olympics have come and gone, and it's likely Justin Timberlake won't be the only high-profile celeb making a trip to the country once they do.