Pro-Gay Companies Stop Being Pro-Gay in Russia. Here's How to Fix That.

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
March 12 2014 12:52 PM

Pro-Gay Companies Stop Being Pro-Gay in Russia. Here's How to Fix That.

A shot from the November 2013 guerrilla photo shoot at a Brooklyn IKEA.
A shot from the November 2013 guerrilla photo action at a Brooklyn IKEA.

Photo by Sasha Kargaltsev, via Flickr.

Pity the multinational corporation. It operates in many nations, and those nations are all so different!

Take, for example, a company like AIG or Ford. Or Coca-Cola. At home, in the United States, they have to be good for the gays, because that's good for business. In Russia, the opposite is true. The level of corruption in the Russian government is rivaled only by its level of homophobia, and failing to toe the Kremlin's anti-gay line can bring the ire of its entire extortionist, business-killing machine upon the corporation.

But even as the human-rights gap between countries widens, communication continues to improve. So when a company does something in Russia, its customers in America hear about it. Like when IKEA edited an interview with a British lesbian couple out of the Russian edition of its in-house magazine. (It ran in other editions around the world.) Or when a Hilton in Moscow canceled its contract with the Russian LGBT Network a day before its conference was to convene there. Or when it turns out that companies on the Human Rights Campaign’s list of “best places to work” have entirely different personnel policies in the United States and in Russia, where their LGBT employees have a much greater need for protection.

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Which companies have different policies in Russia than in the United States? Why, most of them. Last month, a Russian online magazine contacted companies from the HRC list that have offices in Russia and asked them a single question: Do they provide health insurance to the same-sex partners of their employees? “What we got was no so much an investigation as a fascinating account of our reporter's attempts to get an answer out of the multinational companies,” the editors wrote in an introduction to the resulting report.

Eight companies—including General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Gap—did not answer the reporter's repeated emails, phone calls, and social-media queries over the course of several weeks. Nine other companies—including Chrysler, McKinsey & Co., and Citigroup—responded only to say they would not comment. Eleven companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Ford—claimed that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but they don't provide health insurance to same-sex partners, either. Along the way, the reporter unearthed the Russian version of Coca- Cola's statement issued last summer in response to Queer Nation's protests against its sponsorship of the Sochi Olympics—it omitted all references to LGBT people and issues. (And yes, that means it made virtually no sense in Russian.) Only six of the 34 companies contacted said they provide health insurance to same-sex partners; these were Nike, Deutsche Bank, Dell, Boston Consulting Group, Disney, and Google.

Sometimes, when American LGBT activists learn of such hypocrisies, they sign petitions and stage protests—like when New York activists staged weekend outings to IKEA, snapping the kinds of pictures that were edited out of the company's Russian magazine. IKEA responded by including a dry nondiscrimination statement in the online version of the magazine. The activists claimed victory, though their success was dubious: Unlike the story that was dropped from the magazine, the nondiscrimination statement did not violate Russian law, which has now been interpreted to ban all positive or neutral portrayals of gay people.

Like Stolichnaya Vodka's $150,000 contribution to an American support fund for the Russian LGBT movement, this was a transparent attempt to have it both ways: pacify the gays in America while keeping mum, or as close to mum as possible, in Russia. There is nothing surprising about multinational companies wanting to do this; their entire LGBT customer base in the United States is smaller than the stakes in Russia. Still, if they would like to keep both, hypocrisy is a risky strategy. A boycott can seem to come out of nowhere—just ask Stoli.

Fortunately, there is a solution, an opportunity for U.S.-based multinationals to help Russian LGBT people without jeopardizing their business in Russia. If they can't risk not contributing to the problem in Russia, they should concentrate on contributing to the solution in the United States. That is, they should help LGBT people who leave dangerous countries to live in a safe one.

Every few days, I get a letter from a gay or lesbian parent living in Russia. Often, the letter is triggered by a query from a child's school, which is suddenly interested in why a girl is living with two men, or by the threat from a neighbor who has said she will report the lesbian couple and their two kids to social services. The letter writers are invariably panicked, but they don't ask me what to do—they know perfectly well that they need to get out of the country—they ask me how to do it. Picking up and running to another country where you may not have a job or a place to live for a long time is especially difficult for families with kids—though it's not easy for anyone.

Immigration Equality, a legal organization that represents LGBT asylum-seekers in the United States, has recently hired a full-time Russian-speaking paralegal to help with the intake of new clients. Russian speakers now represent the bulk of the group's incoming clients, overtaking people from Jamaica, who had traditionally held first place. (To grasp the significance of that information, think how much more difficult it is to get to the United States from Russia than from Jamaica.) The hundreds of Russian LGBT refugees who have come over in the last few months are but the forerunners of a larger looming exodus—these are the people with enough money or self-confidence to leave now. As things get more desperate, as they inevitably will, many more will follow. These people are lucky enough to get legal help from Immigration Equality, but at this point there is no organization that can reliably help them with housing, money, job training, and job placement.

This is where the multinational companies come in. First, they should offer their Russian LGBT employees and their families the opportunity to transfer to the United States. Second, they should create programs to actively recruit, hire, and, if necessary, retrain LGBT refugees who are already in the United States. Such programs should not be limited to Russians: As the civilizational divide along LGBT-rights lines grows ever wider, increasing numbers will face more and more danger in countries all over the world, and they will need a safe haven.

Helping thousands or even tens of thousands of LGBT refugees would be a fairly inexpensive proposition for the multinationals: Just think how many English classes can be bought for the price of one defensive media campaign of the sort some companies have already had to run. Instituting programs for refugees wouldn’t solve the hypocrisy problem entirely, nor should we expect it to; corporations are not going to become a force for social change. But it would help people. And, I bet, it would boost the companies' HRC ratings.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.