Will the U.N.'s New Campaign Help or Hurt Gay Rights Abroad?

Activists and experts split on how the 'Free & Equal' education campaign will affect local LGBT communities in countries like Russia

Vladimir Putin
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Vladimir Putin's homophobic new laws have sparked an international outcry
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Last month, the United Nations launched a global public education campaign called "Free & Equal," aimed at fighting homophobia and transphobia around the world. "In 76 countries, it's still a crime to be in a same-sex relationship, and in at least five, the legally prescribed punishment is death," says Charles Radcliffe, chief of the U.N.'s Global Issues Section. "We are ready to intervene when we see human rights defenders arrested and detained." The U.N. hopes to confront violence and discrimination by emphasizing that LGBT rights are fundamental human rights. Adds Radcliffe, "There is a lot of misinformation that gets in the way of rational discussion, a lot of negative stereotypes."

In many ways, the timing couldn't be better, with Russia's homophobic new laws against so-called "gay propaganda" setting off a widespread outcry. But some experts are concerned that the U.N.'s campaign will have little impact in places like Russia – and could actually make matters worse. Janet E. Johnson, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, warns of likely negative repercussions against LGBT individuals and organizations in Russia. "Sexuality has become a political football, with Putin casting himself as the ultimate male-in-chief," says Johnson. "It's a very simple notion that if we advocate, it will change things. But there are countries where it doesn't."

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Johnson notes that even well-intentioned legislation addressing gender and sexuality can lead to a disastrous backlash against local LGBT communities in countries where social norms lag behind the law. Adds Johnson, "The worst example of this disconnect from law and practice is South Africa – the first country in the world to put gay rights in its constitution, but a country where people are raped to try to force them into heterosexuality."

Russian activist and journalist Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, argues that campaigns like the U.N.'s are unlikely to work in Russia. "It's both too late and too early for education campaigns here," says Gessen. She knows what she is talking about: Her refusal to cover Putin's visit with endangered Siberian cranes last year led to her dismissal as chief editor of the Russian popular-science publication Vokrug Sveta, followed by a bizarre personal meeting with Putin. She has also stirred controversy with her vocal support for jailed members of feminist punk act Pussy Riot, as well as being unapologetically out about her own same-sex family. Gessen is more enthusiastic about grassroots efforts like the boycott on Russian-made vodka, which has started to spread from gay bars in the U.S. to many restaurants around the world. "I am all for it," says Gessen, who also supports a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – and who, given the political climate, has decided to leave Russia with her family. "Boycott everything!"

Despite these concerns, the U.N. hopes that its "Free & Equal" campaign can help the cause of LGBT rights abroad. Indian Bollywood actress and activist Celia Jaitley is one of four founding celebrity champions of the campaign, along with pop star Ricky Martin, South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury. Jaitley – an outspoken advocate for India's de-criminalization of homosexuality in 2000 – sees the new campaign as a way to spark important conversations about respect and love. "I hope with 'Free & Equal' we can trigger a chain reaction of the realization that for society to be truly progressive we need to treat every one as one, and not discriminate on basis of sexuality, gender, caste or religion," she says.

The U.N.'s Radcliffe, meanwhile, believes that global attitudes around LGBT issues are shifting for the better. "Even in countries where the situation seems most difficult, a new generation of activists is emerging, providing a new impetus for change," states a hopeful Radcliffe. "20 years from now, it is quite possible we will look back on this time as a tipping point."