An activist wearing a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin joins protesters on the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. / Getty Images
As the winter Olympics open today, there has been a crescendo of condemnation in the West of Russia’s many human rights violations. Sadly, in spite of all the attention Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians and the environment of violent homophobia have received, the situation has not gotten any better. We published our editorial on Sochi back in November with the hope that the International Olympic Committee and sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s or the large network covering the event, NBC, might try and apply some pressure on Russia. But sadly that has not happened, and with the exception of a few token words from Putin, gays and lesbians feel even more embattled now just as the parade of athletes begins.
For the first time ever, the Forward 50 was launched with a profile celebrating a gay Jewish woman — and the kvelling was just starting for gay Jewish achievers.
Edie Windsor made the Top 5 for her role in the fight for marriage equality: on June 26, she won her suit at the Supreme Court, a decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
While the most visible victory for gay rights this year, it was far from the only one, a fact reflected in this year’s list. Six of the honorees are gay, reflecting a more general acceptance of gays in the wider Jewish community, as well as the prominence of Jews in the struggle for equality.
“As a former F50 honoree myself, I think it’s a combination of two factors,” Jay Michaelson, author of “God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality,” wrote in an email to the Forward. “The struggle for equality is among the great civil rights issues of our time, and so it’s natural that those involved with it are recognized in this way.”
Three of the honorees won their place on the list because of their work promoting LGBT issues. As executive director of Keshet, Idit Klein has turned what started as a grassroots group advocating the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jewish life into a national organization that has educators in more than 200 communities around the country; Alan Van Capelle has a long record of fighting for gay rights and headed a New York lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights lobby before stepping in as CEO of Bend the Arc.
But Michaelson identified a second trend at work, namely that “more LGBT people are out of the closet — there were almost certainly past honorees whose sexual identities were unknown to us.”
Three of the honorees reflect precisely that: Glenn Greenwald, Harvey Fierstein and Mitchell Davis were all chosen for their outstanding contribution to their respective fields: Greenwald for breaking one of the biggest stories of the last decade; Fierstein for his Midas touch when it comes to Broadway hits, and Davis for his achievements in the tasty realm of Jewish food. In the past, they would have been recognized for their achievements, completely independent from their sexuality, but with a part of their identity cloaked in silence.
It’s a small step in the right direction.
When the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission was founded in 1990, sodomy laws were prevalent. Amnesty International’s platform didn’t include LGBT rights. The United States wouldn’t grant asylum to refugees on the basis of sexual orientation.
The world’s changed since then, and so has IGLHRC. Since earning consultative status at the United Nations in 2010, the organization has been a powerful voice for sexual rights at the international body, often taking on governments with less-than-friendly policies toward LGBT citizens. It’s also become a ferocious watchdog on abuse on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, shining a spotlight on serial human-rights violators across the world.
IGLHRC was founded by a Jewish woman, Julie Dorf. This month, another Jewish woman takes over as executive director. Jessica Stern, 36, had been the organization’s program director, and played a pivotal role in its U.N. accreditation. A native of Setauket, Long Island, Stern lives in Brooklyn with her partner, CUNY Law School clinical-law professor Lisa Davis, whose mother “desperately hopes we’ll get married by a lesbian rabbi.”
The Forward caught up with Stern from her office up the street from the Forward’s still-flooded building on Maiden Lane in Manhattan.
IGLHRC’s been around for 22 years. Now that you’re executive director, what do you plan to change? What do you want to continue?