This past fall I met Elvina Yuvakaeva, co-president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, while she was traveling through the U.S. Elvina briefed me on meetings she'd just had in Cleveland, location of the next Gay Games, slated for August 2014. She was in the Midwest soliciting some last minute advice for what sounded like a Quixotic project given recent news out of Russia: the Moscow 'Open Games,' a global LGBT sporting competition to be held just three days after the close of the Sochi Olympics.
At the time it sounded far fetched, but fast forward to this week and hundreds of athletes and spectators were registered; among them Australian Olympic snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, and quadruple Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, who planned to compete in the table tennis competition, according to a post on his Facebook page.
Until last night. A day after hundreds were detained in central Moscow for peacefully protesting a controversial trial, and two weeks after over a dozen LGBT activists were arrested in St. Petersburg and Moscow during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, all the venues which had been lined up to host the Open Games contacted Elvina and her colleagues, and cancelled, one by one. According to a post from Elvina and co-president Konstantin Yablotskiy:
Sadly, as we expected, things started to happen -- but on a greater scale than one could imagine. Throughout the past hours, several venues cancelled their agreements with the organizers of the Open Games under various pretexts. In some of these cases, the organizers were informed about 'calls from the administration' that venue management received. Overall, it is 4 sport venues + main hotel and their night club cancelling agreements with the Russian LGBT Sport Federation / Open Games at the last minute.
There was a silver lining though. The Hilton Hotel, host venue to a parallel event organized by the Russian LGBT Network, a public roundtable during the Games, resisted pressure from the government to throw paying clients out on the street without a moments notice. They mobilized their legal team in New York, Washington and Moscow, consulted with the U.S. Embassy, and released this public statement, in both English and Russian:
As a diverse organization made up of varying cultures, beliefs and talents, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. is a proud supporter of the LGBT community ... Whether you're traveling solo, with friends or escaping as a couple or with family, we are proud to offer the gay community special deals and rewards that give you new ways to Go Out. Join us for pride celebrations, other LGBT events or as you make your own memorable moments.
Actually not. A Hilton Hotel in Moscow, a brand which received a perfect "100" rating in the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) annual Corporate Equality Index last year, turned the LGBT activists away too, cancelling a contract at the last minute. It's quite possible that all it took was a phone call and a vague threat or two from a bureaucrat to make it happen.
From Hilton Worldwide's LGBT friendly "Go Out" website
The quotes above are real enough though, pulled from Hilton's canned response to requests that the company speak out against Russia's notorious "gay propaganda" law, or pulled from their gay friendly "Go Out" website. It should be noted that one of the reasons Hilton received a perfect 100 from HRC last year (a metric that's quickly become a point of pride and a major PR opportunity for American and global brands eager to court the "pink dollar"), were the zero points awarded in the category of, "Engages in action that would undermine the goal of LGBT equality."
So to the Hiltons, the IKEAs, and other major global brands who publish gay friendly websites (in English), and compete for high marks from HRC, I have a sincere question for you: What would it really cost you not to throw LGBT people under the bus, on occasion? To be an ally when there might be a small amount of risk involved, risk that a wealthy global corporation with access to the best lawyers in the world is better equipped to take on, to put it mildly, than broke but brave activists and NGOs? What would it cost, on occasion, to behave in the international arena in the same way that many major U.S. companies are doing now in response to Arizona's idiotic "green light for discrimination" law? What would it cost to tell a government bureaucrat, "No, we're not going to deny paying guests a service. And by the way what are you really going to do about it -- take Hilton Worldwide to court?" Hilton Kampala, I'm looking at you too. What will you do when the newly empowered morality police in Uganda start dragging customers away?
Here's what I think: the cost would be minimal -- compared to the incredible goodwill and good PR that could rub off on any of these brands if they decided, on occasion, to show a little backbone. Here's what I also think: Global brands better get used to finding themselves in the cross hairs, because human rights and LGBT rights campaigns and campaigners are increasingly as international as they are. And we're not going away anytime soon.
In the meantime a note to HRC: It's time to give Hilton a downgrade.