By Joel P. Engardio
While Cher and Elton John debated the best way to protest Russia’s anti-gay laws (she wouldn’t sing there and he was willing), my stand for LGBT equality in Russia was limited to likes on Facebook posts.
I don’t drink vodka and I’m not a Winter Olympics fan, so there was nothing to boycott. Then I received a surprise email from a Russian television channel. They wanted permission to broadcast a documentary I made for PBS.
Now I had to decide: Be like Cher and refuse to do business with a country that discriminates? Or follow Elton John’s example and be a gay man who supports gay Russians by trying to engage the nation?
I signed the contract.
It was easy when I realized the channel was Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret), an independent broadcaster critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They’re constantly under threat of being shut down. But 15 million viewers provide just enough popularity and political cover to survive.
My documentary is called “Knocking.” It’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses, a conservative religion my mom joined. Gay relationships are not allowed within the faith. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral, meaning they won’t advocate against same-sex marriage for nonmembers.
How does my film help gay Russians? While Putin oppresses gays, he dislikes Jehovah’s Witnesses even more. And the two groups are connected in the same human-rights struggle, regardless of how they feel about each other.
It’s against the law in Russia for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in a group or share their beliefs with others. Likewise, Russian gays can be arrested if they gather for a pride parade or talk publicly about being gay.
The ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses started in Moscow a decade ago and few cared. A religion that knocks on your door is seen as universally annoying. Yet denying basic freedoms to Jehovah’s Witnesses was a warning for any Russian who doesn’t fit Putin’s ideal. Now gays are the target. Who will be next?
My film explains why German Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first prisoners sent to Nazi concentration camps in the 1930s. They wouldn’t fight in the army or salute the flag because they believed God favored no nation.
Meanwhile, American Jehovah’s Witnesses were fired from jobs and jailed for the same reasons. Their children were expelled from public schools for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
There’s a big gay connection to all this. It goes back to 1940 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a free country could force its citizens to say the pledge. The court reasoned that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith still had the right to ask for relief at the ballot box.
Mobs in 44 states – a tyranny of the majority – physically attacked Jehovah’s Witnesses and burned their houses of worship when the religion refused to comply. The Supreme Court quickly realized its mistake.
“One's right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly may not be submitted to vote,” said Justice Robert Jackson when he gave Jehovah’s Witnesses a win in 1943. “Fundamental rights depend on the outcome of no elections.”
The gay connection is clear today. A federal judge cited the Jehovah’s Witness case from 1943 as a key precedent for striking down California’s voter-imposed ban on same-sex marriage.
Most people dislike Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors. About half the country opposes gay couples getting married. But those views don’t matter. A fundamental right can’t be denied by popular vote, even when it’s expressed in an unpopular way.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have won nearly 50 Supreme Court cases that expanded freedom for themselves and all Americans. They were canaries in the First Amendment coal mine, inadvertently helping other marginalized groups to follow.
Their struggle in the emerging democracy of Russia could have similar impact, given the 20 cases they’ve already won at the European Court of Human Rights.
We don’t have to be each other’s cup of tea, but a free society lets a variety of kettles peacefully share the stove.