During the buildup to the Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to fend off continued attacks on Russia's current wave of violence against LGBT people and its new law banning "propaganda of homosexuality." LGBT visitors to Russia should have no fear, he said last month, because "nobody is being grabbed off the street, and there is no punishment for such kinds of relations. You can feel relaxed and calm [in Russia]," he continued, "but leave the children alone, please."
And Thursday, just one day before the Opening Ceremony, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak reiterated Putin's statement. He said that while athletes are free to express their views, they must "leave the kids alone."
Imagine living in a country where you are prohibited from discussing homosexuality because it would be a negative influence on children. Imagine, then, that the schools are prohibited from including instruction on the "homosexual lifestyle" or from portraying "homosexuality as a positive alternate lifestyle." Or a place where efforts to foster respect for LGBT people are denounced as "pure evil" that "should be declared child abuse." Or a place where some schools ban teachers from mentioning the word "gay" in lessons and student interactions.
Do you live in the United States? All of this is happening right here at home.
As athletes and spectators from the U.S. cheer on our athletes, let's not fool ourselves that the anti-LGBT mythology, legislation and violence shadowing the Sochi Olympics are exotic features of a foreign land. In many ways, official and unofficial, LGBT people in the United States are told to "leave the children alone." There are state laws banning adoption or foster parenting by LGBT people, for example. Great teachers and coaches and school administrators have lost their jobs, some within recent months, simply because their school communities learned that they're gay.
Eight U.S. states have laws restricting or prohibiting positive discussions of "homosexuality" in public schools: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. And similar laws - nicknamed "Don't Say Gay" laws - have been proposed in other states. Unsurprisingly, GLSEN's research found that LGBT students in states that have such laws report less access to potentially life-saving resources, as well as higher rates of anti-LGBT comments made by adult professionals at school.
No one should forget - or ignore - that many of the most vocal advocates of dangerous laws regarding LGBT people in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria, among other countries, are from the United States. The U.S.-based World Congress of Families has been a key player in the emergence of the new legislation in Russia, backed by familiar U.S. religious right organizations like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Alliance Defense Fund and the National Organization for Marriage.
Thank goodness that dedicated educators, advocates and youth development professionals here in the United States, LGBT or not, have refused to be deterred by misinformation and hate. Their efforts working with organizations like GLSEN have created tremendous progress in the past 25 years, benefiting millions of youth, in areas of the country and the world where reactionary forces have not been allowed to triumph.
Nevertheless, homophobia and transphobia remain potent sources of violence and repression in education and the lives of youth. So as we focus so much of our energy toward what is going on in Russia - and deservedly so - I am concerned that we may become complacent about the significant work that remains here at home, and about the reactionary forces, now acting abroad, who still hope to roll back the progress in reducing anti-LGBT bias and violence among youth.
More and more leaders and service providers have become aware of the specific vulnerabilities of LGBT youth, and efforts are underway to improve LGBT youth access to real opportunity and potentially life-saving information and care. So to anti-LGBT zealots, wherever they may be, I say, "leave the children alone, please." There is too much at stake.
DR. ELIZA BYARD is the executive director at GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.