Does the Travel Industry Care About Russia and LGBT Rights? A Ranty Post

Bear Canada

It seems that every few months I get angry and fed up enough to write about something, usually concerning the LGBT community and it is almost always a rant. The same is true today, but I’m not just going to regurgitate the same points for what probably is the 5th or 6th time. No, instead I want to identify the issue, look at where it came from and honestly try to see if anyone really cares.

Last week President Obama decried the recent Russian law that essentially outlaws homosexuality. That’s fine, but the issue has been bubbling up to the surface for a long time and not just in Russia. Around the world while some countries are extending rights and legal privileges to the LGBT community, many others are taking far more dangerous and draconian steps to pretend that we don’t exist as a people.

LGBT Pride Flag, Brussels gay belgium

Before I continue I want to share exactly what the new Russian law does. Known as the ‘Gay Propaganda Law,’ the legislation bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. But it’s of course so much more than that. It criminalizes any attempt to equalize gay and straight relationships, installing special fines for Russians as well as media outlets and foreigners. Another bill signed into law criminalizes anything that is determined to offend religious feelings. Together, the two pieces of legislation give authorities free reign to actively criminalize and punish anything to do with LGBT rights. These actions have also effectively given permission to citizens to be even more active in how they discriminate against the LGBT minority; a sharp increase in violent hate crimes is already reported throughout Russia.

But Russia certainly isn’t alone in how the law treats gays and lesbians, so why are we focusing so much attention on them?

This has been an issue for me as I travel. How does one balance the desire to see a new country with sovereign laws refusing one’s right to exist? Personally, I’ve tackled the problem on a case-by-case basis. I traveled to Morocco knowing full well that it is legally a crime to be gay there. However, I also know that this law is not actively enforced and I personally saw it more of a legal relic than anything else. At the other extreme are countries like Uganda and Russia. In recent years, political forces within Uganda have tried repeatedly to make being gay a capital offense. Restrictive and harsh attitudes towards homosexuality can be found throughout the African continent actually, as well as throughout many other regions of the world. So again, why is Russia getting so much more attention than all of these other countries?

The Djemaa el Fna Marrakech

Part of it is probably inherent racism to be honest. It’s not a positive trait, but I think we have preconceived notions about various countries. I don’t think as a society we are very surprised when predominantly religious societies decide to incorporate moral beliefs into their legal codes. I also don’t think we are very surprised that some countries in Africa have taken a heavy-handed approach to confronting the reality that gays and lesbians actually exist. But Russia is different. Russia is a 1st World country (although those designations no longer are truly applicable), one that at least pretends to be democratic and is clearly active on the world stage. They’re hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, and they’re Russia for God’s sake. While it’s one thing to recognize a certain vein of conservatism in a nation (hello United States) it’s another to see it enforced through the legal apparatus of that nation. That I think has shocked and offended us. It’s shocked and offended me at least.

But while we as a citizenry may be repulsed and appalled by the actions of our former Cold War foe, we are apparently not angered enough to actually do anything about it. No, that’s not quite fair. There has been a lot of grassroots action taken, but nothing from major multinational corporations. This sad fact has clearly been the case in the travel and tourism industry.

The same day that the Russian Gay Propaganda bill was signed into existence, a major luxury hotel chain proudly announced the opening of a new property in Russia. Since the bill was signed, countless other companies have highlighted everything from their lovely hotels to tours and special deals to visit Russia. Yet many of those companies have non-discrimination policies in place and probably have a sizeable percentage of employees who self-identify as LGBT. If actions speak louder than words, than it has been made painfully clear to me that money matters more than morals and principals, something that has disappointed me profoundly, even if it is in no way shocking or surprising.

Why do companies feel as if they can ignore the massive LGBT travel audience? Why is it that they aren’t leading the way in boycotts and protests, letting their financial influence have some sort of sway? Just as our inherent racism didn’t surprise us about certain countries and their restrictive legal codes, the inherent misunderstanding about what it means to be gay or lesbian and how we as the LGBT community react are both to blame.

Let’s imagine a scenario where Russia criminalized an entire ethnic minority, which probably isn’t too far from reality to be honest. What would the reaction in the United States be? Most likely extreme outrage and immediate action in the form of marches, boycotts and political pressure being waged on US politicians; and rightly so. That’s because to us as a society it is reprehensible to be so flagrantly prejudiced against an entire group of people, to capriciously deny an entire minority group rights and privileges based entirely on something they have no control over, such as the color of their skin. I would hope that the hotels and tour companies would take a stand, stop offering activities in Russia and maybe even threaten to pull out their hotels. The furor would be intense, like a social flash bang going off into the ether as it should be.

That’s exactly what has happened with the LGBT propaganda law, yet I see no corporate led protests, I see no outrage from CEOs, I see nothing actually. Instead I see photos of flower displays from luxury hotel lobbies in Moscow being disseminated on Instagram in total ignorance that an entire nation has deemed me unfit to exist. Why is this the case? Because in spite of all the progress we have made in recent years, and it truly is stunning progress, there still exists a fundamental lack of understanding on behalf of many straight people what it means to be gay. It’s not something that can be seen if you line up a group of gays and straights (so many jokes I could make here, but I won’t). It’s a hidden trait, something that can be concealed and ignored. Therefore, since we can repress it what’s the harm in just hiding if we decide to visit Russia? What’s the harm in pretending we’re straight so that no one gets upset? Why even be upset, no one is forcing us to go there, why not just skip it? I also believe that many straight people still, STILL think that being gay is a choice of some sort. A switch I can turn on and off. So while the law in Russia is unfortunate, it’s something that can be navigated.

Granted, this is a lot of conjecture on my part, but it’s the only reason I can think of as to why more hasn’t been said publically. But it’s not the corporate giants that are to blame, it’s our own fault as well. Other minority groups do a much better job at identifying outrages against them and taking action. We in the LGBT community have not historically done a great job in standing up for ourselves. An entire book can (and has) been written about this, so I won’t do justice as to why the LGBT social consciousness gene seems to be turned off, but the blame can and should be shared equally. We don’t do a great job of standing up for ourselves anymore, especially in light of all of the successes we’ve had. Many of which, by the way, have been led by straight allies and not by the LGBT community itself. The concept of Pride Month, for example, used to be more about social justice and community building. I fear that in many cities that is no longer the case and younger gays and lesbians don’t appreciate how far we’ve come and the sacrifices it has taken to get us here. I was not allowed to be out in high school. Even in college I didn’t feel it was possible. Compare that to the kids of today and you start to understand the difference in social psychologies between the generations.

White House

But I digress from my point. That is, even though I am saddened by the fact the travel and tourism industry has done precious little to condemn the position of Russia towards gays and lesbians, there is still time to take action. There is still an open opportunity for companies to say no to Russia, to risk some profits in favor of corporate morality and demonstrate to the world and its employees what they value. Just as it wasn’t right for hotels to be segregated, it is not ok for them to ask gays and lesbians to go into the closet if they visit Russia. And we as members of that colorful minority must be vocal. We must be louder. We must stand up for ourselves and demand what is right, instead of hoping others will just do it on their own. Pride in June shouldn’t have been about Bear Parades and high heel races, it should’ve been about empowering the community to take action. We should be filling buses to Washington, DC to urge our legislators to take a stance, to proclaim that these actions are not right. We should be calling hotels and tour companies, refusing them our business until they do what is right. Imagine if the top five sponsors of the Olympics banded together and asked the IOC to move the Games unless Russia relents. Don’t you think something would happen then? That’s all I’m asking for and that’s all we as a community have ever asked for; to be recognized as human beings and not some demonic ogres freshly raised from hell. We may not change the undercurrent of homophobia amongst the Russian people, but the Russian government must be told that it has to protect all of its citizens, not just the ones it likes.

I don’t know how many of you are still reading what has become quite a lengthy post, but those of you who are I hope will do something, anything to express your dismay (if you have any) about Russia and how we have all responded, from corporate giants to your next door neighbors. There is only one way for things to change, and that’s if we lead the way.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

12 thoughts on “Does the Travel Industry Care About Russia and LGBT Rights? A Ranty Post”

  1. I’ve always taken a fairly unpopular stance with global populations, and tend to have no problems with the likes of Nike, Tesco, Coke bla bla being such a global force. But the non-reactions of the Olympics sponsors has been absolutely mind boggling to me. This is something that Coca-Cola actually tweeted to my friend: httpss:// That one of the most influential companies in the world would take this stance is incredibly upsetting. I guess we have to keep kicking up a fuss, but bloody hell, it should not be this hard.

  2. As LGBT supporter I feel your frustration about the lack of sponsors’ response to Russia’s latest law. Unfortunately these corporations probably feel that in the end, there’s more money to be made by keeping silent.

    For me personally, I’d never felt so… ambivalent about the Olympics because of this whole thing.

  3. I think it just boils down to money. Corporations don’t care about ethics or doing the right thing unless they can make money.

    I think sponsors fear the backlash from all the fruit loopy neo-cons (like the Chik-fil-a nonsense or JCPenny’s ad furor or the unholy amount of vitriol with the biracial Cheerios girl). Unfortunately they seem to be louder and hold more power than anyone else. Even though they are wrong and ignorant. Plus, who knows how much the Russian oligarchy owns in shares of these sponsors…

  4. I too am bothered (but not surprised) at the lack of response from the Olympic sponsors’ but I am more upset with the lack of reaction of major IOC member countries who talk a big deal about “equal rights” but sit back and wait for Russia to clarify if participants will be protected from prosecution during the games.

    Having briefly visited Russia, I found Russia’s average citizen has to struggle enough to navigate the everyday challenges of making a living and providing for family and friends that while they may not agree with the new law it is just another one that does not impact them or they will work around.

    I really feel it will take IOC countries to start to threaten to pull out of the games to make any difference. In the meantime, I will join you in sending a letter to travel companies.

  5. I agree with you, Matt. The reaction (or more accurately the lack of reaction) by countries and companies has been disgraceful. We must keep reminding the world of this massive human rights violation.

    1. Actually that’s an outdated reference, as I noted in my piece. During the Cold War 1st World referred to industrialized, democratic nations. 2nd World referred to Communist nations and 3rd World were classified as developing nations. Since the fall of Communism in Russia, they’ve been hard to categorize, but certainly fall closer to 1st than 2nd world.

  6. I’ve been giving this a lot if thought, as I booked a trip to Russia this fall before these laws became known. I’m conflicted about whether to go or not. While I’m not gay, I do support what seems to me to be basic human rights and dignity.

    Am I being hypocritical by spending my money in a country where not only would my gay friends not feel safe, but even my views supporting them are seen as propaganda?

    My ticket is nonrefundable and the trip is already a bit of a splurge. I can’t really afford to just eat the cost of the ticket but I also don’t want to sell out my morals.

    I thought about going and using my time there to somehow work/publicize my side of the issue, but I don’t particularly want to end my trip in a Siberian prison.

    Any thoughts on if I should still go and if so, how to do so ethically?


    1. I appreciate the fact that this is a moral quandary for you, that alone says a lot. If I were you I’d go and enjoy the trip. Interpersonal communications is the best way to address these cultural issues, and travel is the best way to do that. So go, be an ambassador for a more open society and lead by example!

  7. Great post Matt.

    Have you seen that the Gay European Tourism Association is lobbying the IOC to ensure that it fulfils its Olympic Charter commitment “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the
    Olympic Movement.”

    GETA has written to the IOC President and Director General and is lobbying the sports ministers of European countries as well as running a petition urging the IOC actively to protect the rights of gay athletes, spectators and organisers and all those who actively demonstrate their support for gay rights during Sochi.

    You can see the campaign and sign the petition here

    Best wishes, Paul

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