Let my people go: Fighting for LGBT Russians

  • by Joe Goldman
  • Wednesday April 26, 2017
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I participated last week in a vigil of solidarity with the millions around the world expressing horror and dismay that concentration camp-type facilities are being constructed in Chechnya to imprison and torture gay men. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has called for the elimination of the entire gay community by the start of Ramadan, initiating an anti-gay extermination not seen since the Holocaust. To stand against such atrocity, I was proud to join the group of elected officials and community leaders outside the Russian Consulate in San Francisco.

Just over 30 years ago my predecessors at the Jewish Community Relations Council stood before this very same building on Green Street, located in an incongruously lovely part of San Francisco's Pacific Heights, to demand the release of Soviet Jewry from oppression and persecution. The fight took place during the generation after the Holocaust. Baby boomers, especially Jews, who were still struggling with their parents' inability to prevent the Nazi genocide, pushed hard to secure freedom for Soviet Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. There were mass demonstrations and interfaith Passover Seders organized in protest, as well as an alternative cultural event hosted outside of the Bolshoi Ballet performance in San Francisco. It was a battle that was ultimately won. Millions of Soviet Jews were eventually allowed to emigrate and San Francisco is now home to the fourth largest former Soviet Jewish community in the United States.

This is the kind of work that gives JCRC its raison d'etre. We believe the Jewish community has a special interest in defending democratic institutions that provide security for all and work to repair the world (tikkun olam ) through social justice. As the advocate for over 60 Bay Area Jewish organizations, we were active in the decades-long fight for freedom of Soviet Jewry and also spoke out when Putin's regime ratcheted up its attacks against Russia's LGBT community. In 2013, JCRC sprang into action and convened the leadership of the LGBT and Jewish communities in San Francisco to share about our experience fighting for fellow members of our community from afar.

One of the most important aspects of our activism in support of Soviet Jews and LGBT Russians has been humanizing the movement and listening directly to the leaders on the ground. It is the individual's stories, their needs, and their freedom that sustains the movement for liberation. Prominent Refuseniks (a term given to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate) became the face of a human rights movement. The desire to follow the lead of those on the ground harkens to my empowering experience of working with LGBT activists abroad in Israel, as well.

While many hear about the success of Tel Aviv Pride, few realize the fact that Israel's own indigenous LGBT community, at the helm of organizations like The Aguda, Jerusalem Open House, Israel Gay Youth and many other non-governmental organizations, has thrived in a country where there is far less of a barrier between religion and state. I'm proud of the partnerships these organizations have had here in the U.S. with groups like A Wider Bridge, which fosters relationship building between Israeli and North American LGBT communities, as well as various philanthropies. The friendships that I've made with the activists over the years have taught me how to confront the new reality we face here in America, and I am inspired by the interest and support for Israeli civil society that they have spurred in American Jewish and LGBT communities at a time when humanizing the other remains a global challenge. I yearn for the day that we can see the same level of awareness and partnerships with LGBT Russians.

Of course there are differences between the Jewish and LGBT communities in this new attack on our right to exist. Jews are a religious, cultural, ethnic and national community. Meanwhile, LGBT people are indigenous to every single division of humanity, just like all genders. The desire to seek justice for a marginalized group of people may be the same, but the demands are often different. That's why today when I say, "let my people go," I am not hoping that LGBT Russians are forced to flee of their home country, as my Jewish ancestors were for generations, but rather that they be allowed to live in peace in Russia in ways that my ancestors were denied. Let my people go be free in their own home. That's the only way we can assure a future for the generations of LGBT individuals that will one day be born.

Even as we work to assure a future for the LGBT people born every day in Chechnya and elsewhere, we have to do whatever we can to assure security for the LGBT people currently being persecuted. We have to get them away from the threat of genocide before we can even think about building strong LGBT communal structures. This is why I support the efforts of All Out, which is coordinating directly with the Russian LGBT Network to raise money abroad to help get as many LGBT Chechens to safety as possible. This is the best and only way to resolve the situation and also lift up the victims.


Joe Goldman is the public affairs and civic engagement manager for San Francisco at the Jewish Community Relations Council. Recently appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to serve on the Airport Facilities Naming Committee to determine how to best honor the late Harvey Milk's legacy at San Francisco International Airport, Goldman is a longtime advocate for LGBT equality, social justice, and a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.