Russian police detain a gay rights activist during a rally outside the mayor’s office in Moscow on May 25, 2013. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)
On the day that the Russian State Duma approved legislation banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors,” Sasha got piss drunk. Speaking in a basement gay bar hidden within a flower shop in downtown Moscow, the 41-year-old gay man, who asked that his last name not be used, said he was distraught not for himself but for gay youth coming of age in an atmosphere of homophobia.
“I got drunk for our teenagers who were born gay. Now by law they are some kind of monsters,” he said.
Russia’s lower house of parliament passed the bill on June 11 in a 436-0 vote with one abstention. Once signed into law as expected, it will impose a fine of up to 5,000 rubles ($150) on individuals for “spreading information directed toward forming non-traditional sexual orientations among minors,” as well as for promoting the “social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.” (Earlier versions of the legislation referred to “homosexual propaganda.”) Discussing LGBT issues in the mass media or online will bring fines of up to 100,000 rubles for individuals and 1,000,000 rubles for organizations.
Much of the Russian population appears ready to take the law at face value, as a way to protect minors from information that “can harmfully impact their minds and instill distorted conceptions of the relationships between people,” as Sergei Zheleznyak, one of the bill’s authors, put it. But many in Russia’s LGBT community fear the legislation will tacitly condone discrimination and violence against sexual minorities. LGBT activists are already regularly beaten here, and two men were gruesomely murdered in separate incidents in May, allegedly for being gay.
“These social consequences are a lot more dangerous than any fines for 5,000 rubles or a ban on public events or something like that, because they are connected with people’s individual fates,” said the well-known lawyer and gay-rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev.
Russia’s LGBT community, however, remains conflicted about how to respond to rising homophobia, and attempts to hold gay pride parades and “kissing rallies” have drawn criticism from both LGBT people and their opponents.
The gay propaganda law is one of several pieces of recent legislation promoting conservative religious values, a major plank of President Vladimir Putin’s political platform, which has come to increasingly resemble the tsarist-era doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.” (The Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader has described homosexuality as a moral threat to Russia, supported the law.) On the same day the gay propaganda bill was passed, the Duma quietly approved a law drafted after the Pussy Riot trial that would punish public activities “insulting the religious feelings of believers” with up to three years in prison. One week later, the Duma passed a law banning the adoption of orphans by foreign gay couples and single parents from countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
Meanwhile, LGBT groups have been among those heavily fined under a 2012 law requiring non-governmental organizations to register as “foreign agents”—a term for “spy” in Russian—if they receive funding from abroad.
To become law, the three recent bills must be approved by Russia’s upper house of parliament and signed by Putin, but these steps are considered a formality. Putin has said that the gay propaganda legislation reflects “the attitudes of Russian society as a whole,” pointing to laws that were previously passed in ten Russian regions. Indeed, an April poll by the independent Center found that 45 percent of Russians believe that people “most often become homosexual as a result of seduction or their own loose conduct,” and a February Levada poll found that anti-gay sentiment has risen over the past decade.