By Andre Banks, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andre Banks is co-founder and Executive Director of All Out, a global movement for equality. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
“My very existence is proof that homosexuality is normal.”
Last month, this sole sentence was found to violate the law on "propaganda of non-traditional relationships" in Russia. A court in Khabarovsk has sentenced the editor of the region's oldest newspaper to a 50,000-ruble ($1,600) fine for publishing a portrait of a gay Russian school teacher with that quote.
In the United States and a few other parts of the world, and in a remarkably short period of time, there has been a seismic shift toward popular support for gays and lesbians. It is extraordinary and hard-won progress; but only half of an important story. In more than 75 countries, it is still a crime to be gay. In at least 10 countries, you can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment because of who you are or who you love. Those numbers are rising.
In the past month, Nigeria and Uganda both passed draconian anti-gay laws (the so-called “Jail the Gays” and “Kill the Gays” bills, respectively) with sentences as severe as life imprisonment. At least four Nigerian states have seen mass arrests since then, with people rounded up because they seem “too gay” or are known to support an LGBT organization (under Sharia law, Muslims arrested may face death). India's Supreme Court shocked the world in December by reversing a previous court ruling and reinstating Section 377 of its penal code, a colonial rule that criminalizes sex between gay men in the world’s most populous democracy.
Perhaps most visibly, Russia’s “gay propaganda” law has cast a dark cloud over that country’s Olympic ambitions, leading to widespread criticism that the law is a legal pretext for a broad range of persecution. Meanwhile, new federal legislation waits in Moscow: a bill to strip children from parents both gay and straight who “allow for non-traditional sexual relations.” Foreign same-sex couples could also be banned from adopting Russian children.
Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive attempts to deflect criticism, the agenda is clear: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Russians – and those who stand up for them – will be denied the full rights and privileges given to other Russian citizens.
But at the same time, we are seeing incredible progress. Victories on marriage equality are piling up across the United States, United Kingdom, France and parts of Latin America. Argentina has passed comprehensive legislation to protect people of diverse gender identities. And in some places, the cultural change is moving even faster: photos of Disneyland Japan hosting its first lesbian wedding went viral, with Mickey and Minnie doing the honors as best mice.
This disconnect is as glaring as it is treacherous. If these trends continue, the ability to live openly will soon be a privilege reserved for the few – determined largely by the luck of your birth. This is a world where more people routinely sacrifice their safety and dignity, family and freedom because of who they are or who they love.
If we believe in equality anywhere in the world, we must believe in it everywhere in the world.
Consider the story of Roger Mbédé. Roger spent a year jailed under Cameroon’s anti-gay laws for sending a text to another man: “I’m very much in love w/u.” Last month, Roger Mbédé died at the age of 35, unable to find a job and harassed until he was forced to leave the university where he was studying.
Roger needed the support of citizens around the world to prevail on their governments to lead and not follow on these issues. Roger needed corporate leaders to fight for policies that respect their gay employees, wherever they work. He needed government bureaucracies to represent gay constituents just as much as anyone else. He needed a star soccer player to express respect for gay teammates. Roger needed his church and his minister to come out and love him in the light, rather than casting him out in the dark.
This month, governments, corporate sponsors, the world’s best athletes and the international media will descend on Russia, home of the Olympic Games and among the most notorious anti-gay laws in the world. It is perhaps an accident of history that in this single moment we will see the global debate on these issues played out across a microcosm of ice rinks, slopes and medal podiums.
Will this be the moment when the most powerful among us lead with love and declare their values? Major Olympic sponsors have so far stayed silent on the deadly laws and the implications for their own employees in Russia.
LGBT activists in Russia and around the world fighting against anti-gay laws will be watching. And no matter what happens in Sochi, they will fight on. The rest of us have an incredible opportunity to join them by using our influence and resources to push for the world we want rather than the world we have.