How Yelena Goltmsan Ended Up on the Front Lines in the Battle To Boycott the Olympics

Updated: Dec 4, 2018


Article / I profile the founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, the Russian-speaking American LGBT Association.


Yelena Goltsman, center, at a protest outside the Metropolitan Opera’s gala opening on Sept. 23, 2013.(Sam Spokony/Gay City News)

A warm, motherly 51-year-old Soviet Jewish émigré with a penchant for floral patterns and pearl earrings, Yelena Goltsman never imagined she would become a political activist. But as the founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, the Russian-speaking U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Association, she has found herself at the forefront of the international resistance against Russia’s infamous “gay propaganda” law. “We’re all activists now,” she told me recently, drinking tea on the living room couch of the home she shares with her wife in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “It is impossible to tolerate this.”


The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have attracted international attention for more than just sports and athletes. Six months ago, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” In Russia, “nontraditional sexual relations” means anything LGBT. And the loosely defined “propaganda” encompasses “the distribution of information” that could precipitate “the attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relations” and “the erroneous perception” of their “social equivalence.” In other words, everything from public displays of affection to the distribution of educational pamphlets, gathering in a support group to providing information about LGBT identity, could be grounds for prosecution. So far, there have been few instances of actual enforcement, but the official disapproval of LGBT relationships—the government says the law is meant to “protect” minors—has led to a spike in the suicides of LGBT teenagers, as well as open and largely unpunished violence against the LGBT community. The Olympics, Goltsman said, have provided the world with “an unbelievable focal point to the LGBT struggle in Russia.” She should know: RUSA LGBT, which she founded in 2008 after years of urging from her rabbi, was the first and one of the loudest voices to call for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Games.


“The law silences people,” said Goltsman. “But it takes years and years to get over prejudices. Even in America, a free country, we are still far away from gaining true equality. In Russia, where there is no dissemination of information, it is impossible to change minds.”


Read the profile in Tablet.