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A Judge’s Conscience: Dog Shows, ‘Gay-Friendly Propaganda’ and Russia

This week’s column will be a little different, perhaps more personal than usual, but I believe a question I’m concerned with right now may apply to a lot of other dog people as well.

Should dog show judges have a conscience? That sounds like a weird question, I know: of course you need to have a clear conscience when you’re judging. If you aren’t confident that you have done the best job you possibly could, and put the dogs you’re judging in as close to the order of merit as you think they deserve – how would you be able to sleep at night? Maybe I’m naive, but I do think most judges are very conscientious in that respect. Some exhibitors may not agree, but I believe that when we encounter what we lightly call “bad judging” (and what’s bad judging to you and me may, of course, be a supreme example of expertise to someone else), it’s more often due to a judge’s different priorities than to his or her knowingly putting anyone than the dog they like best first.

What I’m talking about is something different, however. Politics and sports don’t mix, we’re often told, but how far should a judge go to be “politically correct” – and how can you be sure just what this is, for that matter? We have a very specific case in front of us right now. As published on Best In Show Daily a couple of weeks ago, AKC Chairman of the Board Alan Kalter and President Dennis Sprung have sent a joint letter to FCI, the international body that coordinates dog shows in most of the non-English-speaking world, asking it to pull the 2016 FCI World Dog Show from the designated host country, Russia. The reason, as everyone who’s been following the news recently knows, is that Russia recently introduced stringent laws against “gay propaganda.” Even being what’s called “gay-friendly” can land a person in jail for up to two weeks.

In their letter, Kalter and Sprung wrote that the “proliferation of anti-gay and lesbian laws in Russia today is both disturbing and shocking to our community.” For Russia to host such a prestigious dog show “flies in the face of the ideals of the human-canine bond.” They urged FCI to move the World Show from Russia to a “nation that respects and upholds human rights for all its citizens” and stated that “AKC cannot and will not support participation in the 2016 World Dog Show if it is held in Russia.”

No Choice in Host Country
For the record, the American Kennel Club, like its counterparts in most of the English-speaking world, is not a member of the FCI, so obviously had no say in the choice of host country for the World Show. It is also not clear if there is any statute that would allow FCI to go back on its democratically elected choice of host country for the World Show because that country’s political situation has changed. The sentiments expressed in the AKC letter are noble, however, and both Kalter and Sprung have been justifiably commended within the dog fancy for taking a strong and immediate stand.

Newly appointed FCI President Rafael de Santiago of Puerto Rico has responded, in part, that although he personally is against the Russian laws, he has to make sure FCI follows established statutes and procedures. “I guarantee you that our executive and general committees are working on resolving this disgraceful situation,” he writes. Obviously, the last chapter has yet to be written.

On the larger world scene, AKC’s attitude is mirrored by many who, for the same reasons, suggest a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Russia as well. This includes a number of celebrities, but not – so far – any world leaders. President Obama added his voice to a growing chorus of politicians and sportsmen concerned that the laws may be enforced during the Olympics, but pointed out that Russia and President Putin have to consider world opinion during such a highly publicized international event: It would not be a smart PR move to enforce the laws against foreign athletes and visitors during the Winter Olympics.

Judges and Exhibitors in Jail?
Dog shows, even an FCI World Show, aren’t nearly as high profile as the Olympics, of course, but the fallout from some foreign judges or exhibitors landing in jail for pro-gay statements would probably be more than the Russian authorities want to deal with. (Of course, no one knows exactly how many visitors to the World Show are gay, but if you include dog people who are comfortable with and positive towards gays, my guess is that a very high percentage of the foreign visitors might risk being put in jail.)

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times on August 22, 2013, addresses the question of a possible boycott of the Olympic Games, but the content can be applied to the World Dog Show as well. The editor states that the new laws, of course, “should be denounced by leaders everywhere,” but not be the basis for a boycott. Violations of human rights are common in too many countries; China is one of them, which didn’t stop U.S athletes and visitors from attending the Summer Games in 2008. Thousands of Americans travel to China every year, many AKC judges among them. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) The LA Times goes further: “Even the United States wouldn’t necessarily be exempt from calls for boycotts; the death penalty, for example, has been abolished in almost all European nations as a human rights violation.”

Should You Go?
But even if you’re willing to take the probably small risk of landing in a Russian jail, should you go? That’s the ethical question that no doubt many American judges who receive invitations to judge either at the World Show or other Russian dog events will have to face. Is it better to keep the lines of communication open or should you simply stay away from a country whose politics you don’t agree with?

That question, as indicated in the LA Times editorial, applies not just to Russia today, but to many other countries in the past as well. I chose not to go to South Africa during apartheid in the 1970s or ‘80s; that was an easy choice. I remember being surprised that a fellow judge accepted an assignment in a Latin American country that was then suffering under an extremely repressive regime. This was long ago, and things have changed considerably, but it helps to remember that as far as anti-gay laws go, sex even between consenting gay adults was illegal in the United States as recently as 10 years ago. (Interestingly, being gay was legalized in Russia as early as in 1993 – long before in the U.S.)

I have talked to several different people about traveling to Russia. A reliable source at the American Kennel Club stated that although the letter from the chairman and president represents AKC’s official view, every judge has to decide individually what he or she feels is best, and no action will be considered against AKC judges who go to Russia. Several international multi-group judges who do not agree with AKC’s stance say they will continue to accept judging assignments in Russia. They believe it’s important now more than ever to stay in touch with Russian dog people, and they also feel that the talented and ambitious breeders there should not be penalized by being deprived of international judging expertise from the U.S. (No other country’s judges, as far as I know, have considered a boycott.) And before you say that these judges are willing to sacrifice principles for the opportunity to judge overseas, believe me when I tell you these are judges who receive so many invitations to judge all over the world that they have to turn a lot of them down.

No Negative Attitudes
I have been lucky enough to travel and judge in Russia on a couple of occasions. I had a wonderful time, was met with great kindness and hospitality by everyone I met, and did not encounter any negative attitudes toward gays at all. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, the same as in the U.S.

All this was brought home to me when, soon after reading the letter from AKC to FCI, an invitation arrived to judge at the Eurasia show next year. That’s Russia’s biggest show, with some 13,000 entries over two days in a huge exposition center in Moscow. I’d love to experience this show, but should I go or shouldn’t I? Is there a difference between the days when I lived overseas and traveled to the U.S., both happily and frequently, at a time when being gay was illegal here, and going to Russia now that they have introduced laws that are aimed at curtailing the freedom of expression not just for gays but for anyone who’s gay-friendly?

Incidentally, the exact wording of the new law is not clear, but it’s important to note that it refers to “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” not to being gay or to private gay activity. Apparently, as long as you’re discreet about, it you can do what you like, but even holding hands in public could be construed as propaganda.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t decided. I don’t think I’ll go, but if so, there are other, unrelated reasons for this, and I’m not totally convinced that a boycott would have the desired effect; at worst it might even appear to be hypocritical.

What do you think?

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.
  • John Behan August 28, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    I am sorry! My opinion is there can be NO wavering on this issue. NO World Dog Show in Russia or complete and total boycott of all things Russian; especially the World Dog Show (Dogs ARE my greatest passion in life). Are we to believe that dogs in Russia discriminate between the gay & lesbian community and all others in their society. Answer is obvious. If we are all created equally, with an open minded intent to respect others equally, how can anyone generally, and in the dog world specifically, ever consider going to the World Dog Show in Russia. I, for one, will not enter my dogs for you to judge (ever), if you judge at this show. I will never allow my dogs to be bred to your dogs, if you choose to show/exhibit at this show. It would be in very bad taste for any of us to even go and spectate at this show. Let’s face it; our dogs would never know the difference of not making one show, in a far distant closed mined society and environment. You would be going, to do whatever you do in the dog world, because of your human ego. In addition, if you are gay or lesbian, and have anything to do with this show, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING! The world of dogs is probably the greatest example of where all parts of human society can come together, and put all of the other human agendas on a far back platter. The reason is, again, obvious. If it is truly “all about the dogs”, then consider this particular issue from the eyes and minds of your dogs.

  • Ekaterina Domogatskaya August 28, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    Just read your article in Best in Show Daily. Read from mobile, because I’m traveling in Europe by car.
    About the article… Never ever in my life could I completely agree with the laws of my country. In Soviet time it was much worse than now, but anyway… However, laws are laws, political matters are political matters, people are people, and life is life. I think it’s not correct to associate us with our political regimes, and when you’re saying that you seriously think to decline the invitation to Eurasia because of this law, it sounds almost as if I’d have said that I won’t come to the countries where the discrimination against smokers exists. But who will notice if I don’t come? Definitely not the government, only my friends who would be happy to see me.
    The same here. If you decide not to visit Russia anymore, the ones who write the laws won’t care too much about this. But the dog people who have nothing in common with those laws will be upset, and will lose a lot. Then what for, and for whom?
    And by the way, when you were in Russia in June, that law had already been in effect for half a year or so. Were you ever aware of this? Whether we like it or not (me not), it’s really only against public propaganda, not against people and their private life…

    Ekaterina Domogatskaya

  • Jim M. Powell August 28, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    Thank You for writing about Your thoughts.
    I really hope that you will not go, as with no reactions there will never ever be any change. The law is not only very humanrights unfriendly but it is appealing to a big part of the people in Russia also within our dog community. Going would be a conformation that it is ok to compare people with gay orientation and that they are a “risk for children”. Even the President at RKF Alexandr Inshakov is embracing this idea in a response to the American Kennel Klub: “the law adopted in Russia in June 2013 reads as a ban on non-traditional sexual relations propaganda to minors.. he continues: Increasingly growing number of sexual crimes in Russia, particularly involving children became the reason for passing the bill” And it goes on further bla, bla, bla and then a comparison to people with gay orientation and pedophilia.. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=609877059033478&id=609443442410173&comment_id=98233232&notif_t=like
    Please do not go, and ask your fellow colleagues not to.

    Jim M. Powell

  • Pat Ross August 28, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    While I will express my opinion , the answer is that only you can decide. What a great philosophical discussion to have on the 50th anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.

    One train of thought , I’ll label the Jessie Owens approach . Go , show them that they are wrong , prove that a philosophy of acceptance , not yet universal or perfect but in most of the world moving forward not backwards.

    But on that same 1936 US Olympic Team two Jewish runners ( the only two Jewish members of the team ) , including Marty Glickman , were removed from the relay team the day before the event. One of the replacements was Jessie Owens. Owens unsuccessfully attempted to decline. Marty Glickman always believed that the reason was in part because of Hitler’s views but that Avery Brundage was an anti Semite as well. History often glorifies Owens, but Glickman’s is a less told story.

    I spent a good deal of my career working in Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity and in that role spent time in apartheid South Africa . South Africa was, while I was there, banned from the Olympics . Under the banner of the Sullivan Principals , a number of American Corporations pledged to desegregate their facilities and to use the same employment principals internally as existed in the US. The question that I had to answer was not the eventual right, but in what manner and at what cost ? And what were the circumstances in which we would put ourselves or others in danger in order to demonstrate our principals In the end there were situations where the risk seemed to not out be out weighted by the reward. To this day, some of those decisions trouble me , too little , too much ?

    I believe that the AKC statement was righteous and brave. Not a part of the FCI they could protest resoundingly, with high profile and little risk to their constituency , but they could have also remained silent. I believe that for many of the same reasons, and because too many athletes have worked too hard for a dream, that the USA should participate in the Olympic games.

    So the question, is two fold . What will you accomplish by going – for there needs to be that desire , if presented with the opportunity , once you have asked yourself the question ‘ should or should not go ‘. Then how will you react, what will you do if you or a situation around you occurs because of this new law ? Conversely , what is accomplished by staying home or is the accomplishment in the manner of your decline of the invitation.

    The answers to the questions are personal , and complicated. You need to make the best decision for you.

    Sorry if this is over philosophical but it’s that kind of day.

  • Maria Gkinala August 29, 2013 at 2:40 AM

    Yes, judges need to have a conscience and stand up for Human Rights when the need arises. They are role models in the Dog World.
    By going and participating in any capacity , judges, exhibitors and visitors give the regime a vote of confidence and the regime will exploit the participation and advertise it as approval; the World Dog Show will count as ‘one more successful international event’ in the regime’s propaganda and nuances like “I am here but I disagree with the law” will be brushed under the carpet. Same applies to the Olympic events. If it was possible to go there and join a peaceful demonstration against the unfair legislation then surely it would be a different story but the right of assembly has been taken away from LBGT people and human rights supporters in Russia, so by going my public participation would be interpreted only as approval; would you want that on your conscience ? I know I wouldn’t – and there comes a time when we simply can’t sit on a fence.

  • nancyd
    Nancy Doucette August 29, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    Bo, I enjoyed your through-provoking article and also the well-thought-out replies.

    I feel as several do: you must do what you want to do. Your staying home will not change anything in Russia. Change has to come from within the country, from the people themselves. Your staying home or going will not make much of a difference to Putin and his bigoted ways.

    I do appreciate very much the stand taken by AKC. There is so much injustice all over the world… It gets sadder every day… You go, Bo, if you wish – if you land in jail you have plenty of friends everywhere who will post bail (or we will join you)! Weak attempt at humor…

  • Lynne Park August 30, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    We have very little opportunity as average citizens to voice our approval or disapproval of the mistreatment or denigration of other humans. We can vote with our attendance and our dollars. If I had to make the decision about going to Russia for this show – and I don’t have that worry – I would not go. Nor would I go to any country that routinely subjugates/abuses women, children or suppresses political action and awareness. Yes, we have that here in the USA to some extent in addition to abuse of animals, our environment and too many others to mention. But this is MY country, I was born here and here I can try to do something about it. The only way to affect even the tiniest disapproval and sadness over the Russian situation is to not contribute even .1 cent to their economy. That is all we as non-Russians can do.

  • Kathy G August 30, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    Come back to center. You’re losing your “reason” for showing dogs.
    This isn’t supposed to be about who you are, what you do, who you know……it’s supposed to be ABOUT THE DOGS…..not the people!
    WHERE does it say on an entry form, “Are you gay? Are you a lesbian?” Who cares? Do you really think that’s interesting “must know” information? It’s not! We go for the DOGS to compete. That’s it. So, why was this human element even brought up by Russia or anyone? It’s ridiculous! The judges are the last word in a dog show and they are supposed to put up the best respresentation of the standard. Have faith that they will do just that. If you’re concerned about a judge’s ability to judge the standard…then don’t enter under that particular judge.

  • Bo Bengtson September 3, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Thanks for all the comments. A lot more were sent via email. This is obviously a very emotional and very important subject. The number of readers who are upset because they feel I told people we SHOULD travel to Russia is about the same as those who are angry for the opposite reason! You can’t win… but just for the record, I think it’s possible to see both sides, and everyone should decide for themselves.

    Just FYI, I turned down the invitation to judge the Eurasia 2014 show, but that decision was influenced by other reasons. If I’m invited again I’m not at all sure it would be best to refuse to go.

    Please see also the letter from the Russian Kennel Federation to AKC, which has been posted on the BIS Daily website: http://www.bestinshowdaily.com/blog/2013/08/russian-kynological-federation-responds-to-akc-letter/

  • Marina Slepneva September 3, 2013 at 2:16 PM

    I know all the reactions that the law has caused, but it’s not really an “anti-gay” law, it’s a law against propaganda among minors. I do not think that’s the biggest problem we have here in Russia; it looks like our government tries to divert us from something more important.

    And now almost all the world is against Russia. Most of those that support the petition from AKC to FCI hardly know what the law is about; they just call it an “anti-gay” law and call on people to boycott not only the Olympic Games but also the World Dog Show in Moscow.

    It’s a shame for Russia… our stupid law when nobody knows what exactly could be considered as “propaganda” … I can read SO many bad comments against Russia on Facebook. On the one hand, I can understand people that are afraid for themselves here, but on the other hand, I would like them just to read what the law actually says and draw their own conclusions. Instead of that they are just angry at Russia. It’s understandable, I am just very sorry for the dog world. I do not like the situation here in Russia, but I don’t think we need another Cold War because of our legislation’s imperfection.

    It’s a pity if you can not judge at Eurasia next year. I think it would be great! But I am so glad to hear they invited you!

    Marina Slepneva

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