After a triumphant month so far at the New York Stock Exchange with the relatively smooth Twitter IPO under its belt, things got a a bit rocky Monday when the NYSE hosted its third annual "Russia Day." LGBT rights group Queer Nation gathered outside in protest of Russia's treatment of its LGBT citizens.
A Change.org petition by Bert Leatherman inspired the event, which drew a crowd of more than 20 protesters and even more curious tourists and financial professionals. It was the latest in a string of demonstrations by gay rights groups at various Olympics-centric events. Recently, activists assembled in protest at Team USA's 100-Day Countdown to the Olympics in Times Square.
"Mr. Neiderauer has an exceptional responsibility to be a steward for a certain image for such a prominent American institution. The NYSE is an important symbol of American values and this is degrading its image by associating it with Russia," said Leatherman.
Outside the exchange in a plaza at Broad Street and Wall Street, protesters held rainbow flag banners and shouted chants like, "Russia's laws of gay harassment, poor return for your investment!" and "Don't invest in Russia! Divest! Divest!"
According to the NYSE, today's event was focused on capital markets and investments, not political issues. The NYSE hosts a number of country days each year. The U.S. has just under $10 billion of investment in Russia, according to the U.S. Trade Representative.
But protesters didn't feel this explanation was sufficient.
Gilbert Baker, a member of Queer Nation and the creator of the Rainbow Flag, called Neiderauer an "idiot" for going forward with the event, saying he "missed an opportunity" to take a stand against LGBT oppression in Russia.
"It doesn't cost [the NYSE] a dime, but it will cost them everything if they're on the wrong side of this," Baker said. "It will cost them their credibility."
One police officer, Detective Tommy Moran, told one of the organizers, "You guys had some impact — usually they have a flag up or some branding."
Typically, when the NYSE hosts a country or company, they hang up their flag or logo outside of the exchange. Any unsuspecting person Monday, though, would have no idea the exchange was hosting Russian businessmen and government officials.
But even a member of the NYSE has leant his support to the protest. "I wholeheartedly support this petition," Walter Schubert, the first openly gay member of the exchange, wrote on the Change.org petition, which had more than 9,500 supporters as of Monday afternoon. "I will also go the extra mile and speak with my friends in the management of the NYSE about this petition, and the NYSE's planned involvement … stressing with them the need for them to withdraw from this Russia Day 2013."
Andrew Miller, who helped organize the protest, said, "The NYSE needs to understand that if they invite members of the Russian government to ring the closing bell, it makes them complicit in the human rights violations against gay men and women."
This isn't the first time LGBT groups have protested at the NYSE. Several members of ACT-UP, the AIDS advocacy group, infiltrated the floor of the exchange in 1989 and chained themselves to the VIP balcony to protest the high prices of AZT, an AIDS drug. Today's protest included several activists who had participated in protests with ACT-UP, including John Williams, a 51-year-old from Hell's Kitchen who had been arrested four times in gay rights protests, and Mark Black, a 64-year-old retired social worker from the Upper West Side.
Despite the petition's calls for the day to be canceled, NYSE chairman Duncan Niederauer sent a letter to Leatherman Monday defending the exchange's decision to go forward with Russia Day. (Full text below).
Outside the exchange Monday afternoon, protesters were eager to express their contempt that the NYSE had chosen to go ahead with Russia Day, even though other groups had withdrawn their endorsement or sponsorship of another event to promote investment in Russia, Russia Forum New York.
American Bar Association president James Silkneat canceled a speech he was scheduled to give at the forum. The law firm Goodwin Procter was going to sponsor and host the event in its New York offices, but pulled out, telling The American Lawyer, "Recently, several troubling issues, including the Russian government's anti-gay policies, were brought to our attention...we reached a decision [Monday] night that we could not provide space or support for the event and communicated that to The Russian Center."
The event was moved to The Kosciuszko Foundation, where it was greeted by Queer Nation NY protesters. Duncan Osbourne, a Queer Nation NY member, said that the organizers had called the police on the protesters outside. "They didn't do anything — unlike in Russia, we can exercise First Amendment rights."
Letter from NYSE Chairman Duncan Niederauer:
Dear Mr. Leatherman,
Thank you for your letter and petition raising these concerns to our attention. As i hope you would expect, we take these issues extremely seriously. As I hope you are aware, the NYSE has been a longstanding and leading advocate for LGBT rights.
Events like "Russia Day" provide an opportunity to foster dialogue on a number of topics. In fact, it would not surprise me in the slightest if an attendee or potential investor were to express concerns over the issues raised in your petition. What we plan to do on Monday is to convene a forum for business leaders and other interested parties from across the globe to meet and discuss economic policies promoting entrepreneurship, financial market development and job creation. In no way should this event be viewed as an implicit or explicit validation of any Russian government or social policies. We abhor discrimination of any kind and, consistent with many of the LGBT organizations with whom we have collaborated, believe we can make a difference through dialogue and engagement – sharing our experience that jobs, growth and sustainable development can only be achieved when opportunity is available to everyone, equally.
In closing, we are proud to have an active employee group that seeks to raise awareness and understanding within the company of issues relevant to LGBT employees. We also have a long history of using the NYSE as a platform to raise public awareness and understanding of issues relevant to the LGBT community at large. Listed below, please find a list of all our recent activities around both employee and public engagement.
Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention, and for permitting me the opportunity to reiterate theNYSE's commitment to supporting equal rights for all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation.