Five Questions: Fighting Anti-LGBT Laws in Russia

Joe Goldman

Joe Goldman

Joe Goldman, CCAS BA ’11 is the program associate for legislative affairs and intergroup relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in San Francisco.  JCRC represents Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations on issues impacting the rights and protection of Jews as individuals and as a community.

One of those issues has been the anti-LGBT laws within the Russian LGBT community; over the last few months, Goldman has been working to shed light on this important issue, for reasons both professional and personal. We recently caught up with Goldman to learn more about his work–and how he applies the skills he learned at GW to succeed: 

GW: Tell us about your work with JCRC.

JG: The Jewish Community Relations Council mobilizes the Jewish community and amplifies its voice on issues of critical concern.  My particular job focuses primarily on building relationships with other ethnic, faith, and minority communities that share our values and commitment to social justice.  Some of these issues include immigration reform, eradication of poverty and homelessness, and LGBT equality.  I even get to run a tour for staff of elected officials of Jewish social service agencies to showcase the work that the community does to fill in where the government simply cannot, providing lifeline services to thousands of non-Jews across the Bay Area.

I love what I do because it always keeps me on my toes and no single day is the same as the next. Not only is it my job to religiously follow news from Washington, but I actually get to implement grassroots action toward the policies I advocated for back in my days as an activist in my native Los Angeles, and later as a GW student in the nation’s capital.

GW: Why are you passionate about helping to fight anti-LGBT laws in Russia?

My ancestors fled pogroms and existential persecution in Eastern Europe when it was controlled by Czarist Russia over a century ago.  What Russia did to the Jews back then, and even more recently to Soviet Jewry, is being mirrored in the government’s oppression of the country’s LGBT community.  With Russia, the old habits of institutional bigotry and violation of human rights die hard; LGBT people are the new Jews.  As an openly-gay Jew, it’s painfully clear to me what my reality would be if my ancestors hadn’t escaped Russia’s grip.  I could be fired from my job, targeted by violent vigilantes, and imprisoned for speaking out against the current laws, simply for being openly-gay.  Even my pro-LGBT relatives and friends could be subjected to the same horrors.

JCRC’s executive director, Rabbi Doug Kahn, was highly active in the fight to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s.  When I first read the news of the draconian laws facing Russia’s LGBT community, I immediately saw a connection between what Soviet Jews faced back then, what Russian LGBT people face today, and the ability for JCRC to be an institutional resource as an ally in the fight to create positive change on the ground from thousands of miles away.

As a member of the LGBT community who is also of Russian Jewish descent, I felt that I was in a position to take greater ownership of this cause, recognizing that I had a larger personal tie to this particular concern than other issues I also care deeply about.  But having been involved in the movement for LGBT equality for more than a decade, I know that there are places right here in the U.S. that are painfully difficult to be openly-LGBT, and several other countries where it is just as bad – if not worse – than Russia.  However, I hope that while fighting the good fight here at home, we can also make tangible changes abroad as well.

GW: What has been the most challenging aspect of your line of work?  The most rewarding?

JG: The biggest challenge is always getting people to show up.  The reward is when they do – and actually make a difference.

GW: Did your time at GW influence your career path?

JG: GW’s political communication program is a confluence of both practical skills and intensive theory study that instilled in me an innate sense of how people process political information.  The experiential learning I had during my time at GW is just as valuable: while studying politics in class, I was interning on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, on the Hill, and at a prominent lobbying and communications firm.  Unlike most students interested in this field, GW’s textbooks and instruction gave me the baseline tools to immediately participate in the very world I was studying.

The LGBT community in California is in a unique position unparalleled by virtually anywhere else: not only have Proposition 8 and the applicable parts of DOMA been tossed by the Supreme Court, but California has laws addressing everyone from transgender students to LGBT seniors. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi coming up, I saw an opportunity in which I could, through JCRC, mobilize and engage with the sizeable and active LGBT community in the Bay Area with the current situation in Russia because it would come up often in the news and, at least for the next few months, continue to be at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

The GW experience gave me the chance to balance both the passionate idealism that comes with classical activism and the pragmatism required to achieve the goals we hope to accomplish.  This blend of the ideal and pragmatic guides me through my career choices and direction.

GW: What advice do you have for those aspiring to a career like yours?

JG: Network, network, network! Build substantial relationships with people who might eventually hire you or know someone who will.  Those relationships should be based on proving your work ethic and skills, not just by getting invited to as many political fundraisers as possible.  “Name brand” people are important, but having a lasting relationship with a legislative director at a small agency is much more important than getting your picture taken with half of Congress.

Also, DO NOT follow the herd.  You have control over your narrative, but thanks to today’s ever-changing labor market, not nearly as much as our predecessors did a generation ago.  For GW and non-GW students alike, the political and non-profit arenas are very popular, and the job market shows how competitive it is.  If you’re lucky enough to get a job being a staff assistant on the Hill or as a field operative on a far-flung campaign in a swing state, be proud, patient, and willing to work your way up.

Want to learn more about Goldman’s work? Check out these recent articles from Jweekly.com and The Bay Area Reporter.

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