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Earth to MSNBC's Thomas Roberts: Hosting Miss Universe Is Not Activism -- or Journalism

Roberts says his mere presence will give LGBT Russians hope. How convenient that his "activism" comes with a big fat paycheck. That's not courageous journalism. That's shameless opportunism.
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MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts apparently feels so guilty about going to Moscow to co-host the Miss Universe pageant on Nov. 9 that he's published an apologia on his network's website in advance of his trip.

"Courage is contagious," he says. "Boycotting and vilifying [Russia] from the outside is too easy."

Thomas Roberts has become the next in a forming line of self-involved celebrities traveling to Russia to show Vladimir Putin how out and proud they are, or how supportive they are of their out-and-proud friends and relatives. Elton John, who will be concertizing in Moscow in December "to support Russian gays," is at the head of that queue. (Figure skater Johnny Weir, who was ready to get arrested at the Olympics in August, got, uh, cold feet in September and is staying home.)

Thomas Roberts is the newest go-to gay-is-good guy, a self-serving careerist who, like all armchair activists, finds it necessary to demean those who are actually doing some heavy lifting by deeming their efforts "easy" -- or unproductive, or counterproductive, or useless, or well-meaning but misguided, or too confrontational, or too uppity -- to make himself feel better for doing nothing. Roberts says his mere presence will give LGBT Russians hope. How convenient that his "activism" comes with a big, fat paycheck.

"Russia's treatment of its LGBT citizens is unacceptable, unrealistic, and only promotes homophobia and intolerance," Roberts opines. "It vaguely resembles 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"

Actually, Tom, it more closely resembles Hitler's Nuremberg laws.

If the real purpose of his trip were some kind of investigative journalism, as he recently told MSNBC's Morning Joe, he'd know that the Miss Universe pageant was not "seated in Russia long before any anti-gay legislation was passed this summer," that such laws have been on the books at the provincial level since 2006.

Were Roberts able to grok the issues, he'd realize that not everything's all about him, and that his "courageous" stance addresses the wrong audience. The Russian people have already seen plenty of confident LGBT Americans comfortable in and accepted for their queerness. And, LGBT or not, they're not likely interested in Roberts' good-looking, well-spoken example of how Western LGBT people are just like them.

Nor are the Russian people the problem; the problem is Vladimir Putin and an increasingly fascist government that is making anti-LGBT laws in order to scapegoat LGBT men and women for their own political ends. That's not my analysis. It's Masha Gessen's.

Gessen, a New York Times columnist and the author of The Man Without a Face, the acclaimed 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin (her next book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, will be published in March), is a longtime lesbian activist whom I met in 1990 when she joined the staff of Outweek magazine, which I had co-founded the year before. Today she is arguably the most visible LGBT-rights activist inside Russia, where hers is the only publicly out family headed by two lesbians. They're fleeing the country because she's afraid that her three kids will be taken away from her. She could also, conceivably, wind up in prison like fellow activists Masha Alyokhina and Nadia Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, or worse.

So, Thomas, if you want to "prove there's hope" to Russian LGBT people, do what many of them have asked: boycott all Russian goods, services, and international events. Vladimir Putin doesn't need to be told that what he's doing is "unacceptable, homophobic, and intolerant," nor is what he's doing "unrealistic"; it's all too real. And nice, shiny Western queers wearing pretty rainbow ribbons will not teach him a lesson. He doesn't need to be schooled: He already knows exactly what he's doing. Putin needs to face real consequences -- economic and political -- for his actions.

"I am just like millions of LGBT people around the world," writes Roberts, the new self-appointed spokesman for global queerdom. "We are good, regular, hard-working people who come from solid families." He adds, "I am unafraid to tell you how traditional my husband and I are."

You need to get out more, Tom. And being just like straight people isn't aspirational for all of us, either.

Anyway, for all their statements and hand-wringing, Miss Universe and the International Olympic Committee don't think we're just like everyone else. If they did, the IOC -- now "fully satisfied" with Russia's assurances that its anti-LGBT laws do not violate Principle 6, the nondiscrimination precept of the Olympic Charter -- would have moved the Olympics out of Russia months ago, and the Miss Universe pageant would have followed suit.

Roberts is "proud of the incredible steps forward equality has taken this year." But "equality" didn't step forward; hardworking frontline activists muscled it past a seemingly impenetrable first-string defense and over the goal line.

Thomas Roberts wants to go to Russia because "vilifying it" from abroad is too easy. Fine. Let him and his husband lie down and block traffic in front of the Kremlin while carrying a banner that reads, "Hitler Began With the Gays... No to Fascism in Russia," as activists did elsewhere in Moscow on Oct. 9. Then maybe he'll gain an understanding of what LGBT Russians face every day of their lives.

They don't get to travel first class to watch beautiful women in swimwear parade around in a building protected by the Russian military while a worldwide television audience shields them from their government's boundless human rights abuses -- of LGBT people, foreign laborers, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, Jews, Muslims -- unfolding beyond its walls.

Thomas' op-ed is a transparent attempt by NBC to justify, through one of its handsome, just-happens-to-be-gay journalists, its own complicity with the Russian government's state-sanctioned rapes, tortures, and murders of LGBT people. It is as predictable as it is appalling. So is the persistent hallucination that the Olympics and Miss Universe are apolitical festivals of fraternal competition that float above all worldly malaise.

The Olympics and Miss Universe are not about example-setting; they're about cash. And the Olympic athletes and beautiful women are the products they're selling for a profit. It's nice that the Miss Universe pageant believes that Russia's anti-LGBT laws "are diametrically opposed to [its] core values." That should help Miss Universe, and all the runners-up, and its co-owner, Donald Trump, and NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt sleep at night. It's hard to see who else it will help.

The only people and institutions who have ever benefited from constructive engagement are the people and institutions who profit from it financially. South Africa's apartheid government crumbled only after the rest of the world shamed it, starved it of money, and made it a cultural pariah. The apartheidistas remained comfortably in power while President Ronald Reagan politely criticized their racist sovereignty while pumping billions of dollars into their economy.

Roberts wrote that he's "unafraid to say I am proud of my husband and my family -- I'm proud of their love for me." Too bad that Donald Trump, who hired him to go to Russia, nonetheless continues to oppose his right to marry. If Roberts can't even influence Trump, there's little likelihood Vladimir Putin will be impressed by him.

Courage connotes sacrifice, Thomas Roberts. What are you willing to give up?

Not much. When Bravo personality and former Miss Universe host Andy Cohen decided, rightly, that the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow is no place for a high-profile out-and-proud gay man, he left a conspicuous, uncomfortable empty seat for NBC to fill. And as Thomas admits, "When I heard there was a chance at this assignment, I aggressively went after it."

That's not courageous journalism, Tom. That's shameless opportunism. Don't dress up the reason you're going to host the Miss Universe pageant with lavender eveningwear and a rainbow tiara.


Forty-one Russian gay men, lesbians, and their straight allies have signed their names to the following statement -- at great risk to themselves and their families. More names are added each month by the LGBT activist group Queer Nation, which is assembling the list. Ekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot has also expressed her group's support for a boycott.

Dear Friends,

International support is essential for the survival of Russia's LGBT community right now. We appreciate and support all attempts to let the Russian authorities know that homophobic and inhumane laws will not go unnoticed and that Vladimir Putin's regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi. We also appreciate the attention of international media; we need it. We would also support any legislative initiative aimed at holding the Russian authorities accountable for their homophobic campaign. Thank you for being with us in our hour of need.

1. Masha Gessen, author, journalist, activist

2. Kseniya Kirichenko, lawyer and legal scholar

3. Alexei Davydov,* Radical Faggots Union; political council member of the Moscow chapter of the Solidarity Movement

4. Maria Baronova, activist, Bolotnoye Case defendant

5. Alexander Artemyev, journalist

6. Olga Krause, poet, musician, activist

7. Tasha Granovskaya, social worker, LGBT activist

8. Bulat Barantaev, Homosexuals, Relatives and Friends Movement; member of the political council, Novosibirsk chapter of the Solidarity Movement

9. Mitya Aleshkovsky, photographer, activist

10. Karen Shainyan, journalist

11. Galina Chachanova, freelance translator

12. Yana Mandrykina, attorney

13. Elena Nikitina

14. Alexander Agapov, editor,

15. Elena Rifat Hakimova, activist

16. Olga Kurachyova, journalist, LGBT activist

17. Zlata Bossina, Quarteera e.V., an organization for Russian-speaking LGBT and friends in Germany

18. Tagira Abdullayeva, LGBT activist, medical neurologist

19. Anastasia Putseva, business consultant

20. Tasya Krugovykh, filmmaker

21. Yulia Selezen, philologist

22. Anna Mikhailina

23. Akram Kubanychbek

24. Artyom Uspensky, engineer, LGBT activist, Quarteera e.V., an organization for LGBT and supporters in Germany

25. Olgerta Kharitonova, feminist philosopher,

26. Ostrov Educational Project

27. Olga Lipovskaya, feminist, journalist, translator, activist

28. Pal Corde, poet

29. Svetlana Frons

30. Natasha Zelma, film director

31. Polli Rubchinsky, Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance

32. Lara Katsova

33. Alexandra Borisova, computer programmer

34. Sergei Khazov, journalist

35. Natalia Tsymbalova, Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality

36. Viacheslav Revin, LGBT Assistance (Nizhniy Novgorod)

37. Olga E. Pigareva, Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality

38. Anna Shuval-Seregeeva, Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality

39. Roman Mamonov, coordinator, No More Fear Foundation (LGBT Asylum Project)

40. Ivan Savvine, art historian, curator, journalist

41. Roman Dudnik, HIV activist

*Davydov, 36, died on September 27.

UPDATE: An earlier published version of this post was in fact an incomplete draft. The post has been updated accordingly.

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