The time has come for American corporations doing business in Russia, including top Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonalds, Procter & Gamble and Visa, to show the world that the non-discrimination policies in their employee handbooks have no borders.
For years these companies have enjoyed the patronage of the LGBT community and a reputation as corporate human rights leaders. Both are due, in part, to their high ratings in the Human Rights Campaign's prestigious Corporate Equality Index, an annual report that scores companies based on their policies and practices regarding LGBT employees. An enthusiastic Coca-Cola celebrated its seventh consecutive perfect rating since 2006 with a press release that featured its head of Global Diversity claiming that Coke is "as inclusive as our brands." Visa, with a 90 percent CEI rating, offers a special Platinum Rainbow Card that "provides gays and lesbians access to philanthropic tools no matter where they live or work."
Yet all of these corporations have chosen to remain silent about the well-publicized, systematic persecution of LGBT people in Russia, which has intensified with the passage of a trifecta of laws in June that criminalize virtually every aspect of being or even seeming gay.
Just yesterday, a new bill was introduced in the Duma that would deny gay parents custody of their own children — less than 24 hours after President Vladimir Putin insisted, in a widely circulated interview, that gays are not discriminated against in Russia.
Corporations that fail to act soon risk winding up on the wrong side of history. Last week, activists began dumping Coca-Cola in Times Square. Days later, HRC's president sent a letter to all of the Olympics' top 10 sponsors calling on them to take a number of steps to demonstrate their opposition to Russia's anti-gay laws publicly. Earlier this week, 34 cities in 21 countries across the globe rallied in support of Russia's LGBT activists. Today, President Obama, having cancelled his bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin over Snowden-related tensions, will meet with LGBT rights groups during his trip to St Petersburg for the G-20 summit.
Let's face it: At this point, no one but the International Olympic Committee believes the latest reassurances from Russian officials that "everyone will be welcome at the Games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation." And not only because Putin derailed that notion less than 24 hours later by proclaiming that all protests, marches or demonstrations will be banned during the games.
By now, the mainstream media has begun reporting on the brutal videos the LGBT community has been gasping over for weeks – the ones proudly posted online by Neo-Nazi skinheads who enjoy luring gay men with online ads, then kidnapping and torturing them. In one, a man is forced to drink urine to "cure him" of being a homosexual. In another, a transgender woman is brutally beaten by five laughing thugs.
Footage from August features Russia's top anchor man – their Brian Williams, not some fringe loony – telling his studio audience:
I believe it is not enough to impose fines on gays for engaging in the propaganda of homosexuality among adolescents. We need to ban them from donating blood and sperm, and if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts in the ground or burn them as they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life.
We may be about to see the first conviction under the new gay "propaganda" law. Ealier this summer, police arrested Russian LGBT activist Dmitry Isakov for standing in the center of town with a sign that read: "Being gay and loving gays is normal. Beating gays and killing gays is a crime!"
The time for action is long past due. Berlin 1936 once, shame on then-IOC chairman Count Henri Baillet-Latour, who was content with Chancellor Adolf Hitler's assurances that all anti-Semitic placards would be removed from the city during the games. Berlin 1936 twice, shame on the IOC's current chair, Count Jacques Rogge, and complicit political and business leaders.
Here are the steps we recommend:
Each company should post its non-discrimination policies prominently on its Russian websites. (All but McDonalds prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – a strange omission from the creators of the pantaloons-wearing Ronald McDonald.) The statement should mention that the company encourages a safe and open work environment, welcomes LGBT customers and will not tolerate bullying of its LGBT employees.
Every company should conduct corporation-wide trainings concerning their non-discrimination policies – a particularly important step for any employee confused by the seeming disparities between Russia's repeated declaration that the laws don't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the routine occurrence of gay bashing and anti-gay proclamations (now the Duma is considering offering "reparative therapy" to LGBT people) and their employer's policies. Finally, all of these companies should post their non-discrimination statement on bulletin boards at every one of their factories, distribution centers, stores and offices in Russia.
This kind of corporate consistency is not only key to maintaining each company's integrity: it also ensures compliance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which state that, "All business enterprises have the same responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate."
The time has come for American companies doing business in Russia to demonstrate that their own clearly stated corporate values and policies hold true wherever they set up shop. To do otherwise would mean profiting from their progressive reputation in the West while propping up a homophobic, increasingly fascistic regime in Sochi and beyond.
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