The Miss Universe Organization is moving forward with plans to hold this year's competition in Russia, despite calls for a boycott from former host Andy Cohen and a growing number of fans in light of the country's antigay laws.
The Donald Trump-owned company released a statement today asserting that while it is "deeply concerned by the laws recently enacted in Russia" as well as the "violence experienced by the LGBT community," it will continue to prepare for its contest in Moscow, set for November 9. Miss Universe officials believe the pageant's presence and will "help foster a common understanding and appreciation of the rights of all individuals."
"In our 60-year history we have witnessed, and been a party to, many social changes including those within the LGBT community," the statement read. "It has been our experience that the Miss Universe pageant provides a forum through which contestants from more than 90 countries, as well as their families and friends, forge bonds with citizens of a host country, helping to serve as a catalyst for social change."
Paula Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization, contacted The Advocate directly to reiterate this statement and stress that the show's broadcast will help shine a world spotlight on these injustices.
"I think anytime people can put a spotlight on something and discuss it, that goes a long way to helping ... social change," said Shugart, pointing out positive effects that occured after it hosted its competition in Vietnam in 2008. "There's a lot of opportunities here."
"We have very, very close ties to the LGBT communities," she added. "And I want to make sure that you're aware of that and everyone's aware of that. And that's not something we would turn our back on."
Shugart noted that Elton John would be also performing in Moscow at the same venue, Crocus City Hall, on December 6.
The remarks come in the wake of comments from Andy Cohen, who cohosted the pageant the past two years. The Bravo executive and star told E! News that he would not participate in the Miss Universe competition this year since Russia's "discriminatory policies make it unsafe for the gays who live there and gays coming to work or visit."
"The law is that anyone under suspicion of homosexuality can be arrested," he said, adding that he "didn't feel right as a gay man stepping foot into Russia." (The new national law, similar to those enacted in some Russian cities, outlaws discussions of LGBT issues and identities that might be accessible to minors, and is so broad and vague as to pose great danger to LGBT people, activists say.)
Shugart said that she respects Cohen's opinion and concerns, but asserted that safety for staff, crew, and attendees, was the pageant organization's "number one" priority.
Francesco Pascuzzi, a Miss Universe fan from Somerville, N.J., recently initiated a Change.org petition urging the competition "to send a strong message in favor of equality and human rights by pulling out from hosting the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow." Over 28,000 people have signed the petition thus far.
"We certainly understand the calls for a boycott," Shugart concluded. "I just feel like this is a more productive way because, honestly, if we boycott, nobody would remember the pageant two months after, or a month after the boycott. This is something that looks at it in [the] long term."