On Monday the Princeton Club of New York hosted four officials from the Moscow city government. The occasion was a seminar, "Invest in Moscow," sponsored by the Moscow city government, the Concord Group, Russia Forum NY, and Russia Center NY. Queer Nation NY staged a protest, both in the street outside and by attending the event inside.
The seminar organizers hoped to convince Americans that it is a good idea to invest in the Moscow market. Queer Nation NY's action was to provide a counterpoint argument that maybe this is not such a great idea. The Russian government has embarked on a campaign of harassment and intimidation against its LGBT citizens and passed laws that deny them basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly. Last year the city that these officials represent voted to ban pride events for 100 years, a move that was in belligerent defiance of the European Court of Human Rights. These laws stand in stark contrast to the principles that many or most Western corporations espouse.
In fact, many multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, McDonald's, and NBC, have recently found themselves in difficult and likely costly public relations battles over their entanglement with the Russian government. The very same day of the protest at the Princeton Club, Forbes magazine published a piece reporting that the International Olympic Committee had heard sponsors express a lot of concern that Russia's LGBT policies might hurt their brands.
These Moscow officials can offer no assurances to the American investors they are courting that they will not feel a similar blowback from investing in a country that is very quickly devolving into a totalitarian regime. There is a very good argument to be made that investing in Russia right now is not worth the return in headaches.
The conversation that needs to be had is not about whether we should invest in Russia but about whether we should divest. A nascent movement toward investor divestment is starting to take hold in California, New York and elsewhere. New York City recently closed its tourism board in Moscow over fears for employees' safety.
What surprised me about the response of the seminar organizer and attendees to the confrontation was how aggressively homophobic it was.
I hate to sound naïve, because anyone who knows me can attest that I am a very hardened and cynical old queer. But even so, I and other Queer Nation members were surprised by it.
Before the seminar began, I overheard a young man (who identified himself as a current Princeton student) ask a much older man if the protestors outside were a problem. The older man scoffed and dismissed them as an angry 10 percent that 90 percent of people don't care about -- an interesting use of percentages.
As the activists attending the seminar aired grievances about attacks on LGBT Russians and the oppression of citizens' right to free speech and free assembly, the panel of Russian government officials laughed, which is not surprising, but the room of Americans took their cues from them and laughed along. It was a little surreal to hear people -- Americans -- laughing at the assaults, the oppression. It was very disconcerting.
Mark Milano confronted Sergey Cheremin, Minister of Moscow, on his laughter. "It's not funny, sir," he said. "People are being killed on the streets."
And unidentified attendee yelled out, "It's hilarious! Hilarious!" This is the same individual who later went to shout, "Gay culture should not be promoted, because it will destroy the population of the educated classes." (If the speaker was Russian, his English could pass as American.)
In the same video you can hear a different gentleman seated near me say, "Well, let's listen to the lesbians!" His manner was sarcastic because, obviously, nobody in their right mind would ask a lesbian for investment advice. Am I right, Suze Orman?
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the only concern for this crowd is profit, not the quality of life in the marketplaces that they exploit. But frankly, I had hoped that the investor class of New York City, and the swells who frequent an Ivy League Club, might have been able to handle a discussion of human rights atrocities in a way that was a bit more classy. Laughing at human rights abuses is pretty low.
I had prepared and dressed myself to go to the Princeton Club, not a tea party rally.