Obama to Meet with LGBT Russians in St. Petersburg

A meeting President Barack Obama will hold with human rights activists in St. Petersburg on September 6 will include members of the LGBT community, a top administration official traveling with the president confirmed this week.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told reporters aboard Air Force en route to Russia that the decision to include LGBT leaders came in response to the draconian new law there criminalizing public discussion of relations between people of what it terms “non-traditional sexualities.”

“Saint Petersburg has also been a longstanding location where there’s been a lot of civil society activity,” Rhodes said of the planned meeting, according to a transcript provided by the White House. “I’d also note in particular that we wanted to include representatives of the LGBT community in Russia. Given our serious concerns with some of the recent laws that have been passed and restrictions on activity for gays and lesbians within Russia, we felt it was important to ensure that we were including their voices in a discussion with the president.”

The meeting will likely add to tensions between the American and Russian presidents, already inflamed by Russia’s resistance to United Nations action in response to evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own citizens and to Putin’s harboring of Edward Snowden, a former employee of a leading government contractor who leaked top-secret details of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.

As Obama arrived in Russia, the Associated Press reported that a Russian lawmaker was putting forward new legislation to deny gay and lesbian parents custody of their children, likening homosexuality to alcoholism, drug abuse, and child abuse.

Meanwhile, Putin told AP that the new anti-gay law would not be used to persecute visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, though the Russian government has gone back and forth several times on whether foreigners in Sochi would put themselves at risk by speaking up for LGBT rights.

Putin also tried to put a friendly face on his relationship with the LGBT community.

“I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields,” he told AP and Russian State Channel 1 television. “We have absolutely normal relations, and I don't see anything out of the ordinary here.”

The new Russian crackdown on gays –– coming after years of Pride demonstrations being brutally squelched –– has spawned outrage, protests, and calls for an Olympic boycott worldwide.