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.
Yet many see the federal gay propaganda law as a callous attempt to win public support for a regime that has been shaken by last year’s mass street protests over tainted elections. Polls have shown a steady worsening in the ruling United Russia party’s image, and GDP growth has been falling for over a year, shrinking to 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2013. As a result, several activists said, lawmakers have turned to gay-bashing to distract voters from looming problems.
“Gays have become the internal enemies of the new empire,” said Yelena Kostychenko, a journalist at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who has become a leader of the LGBT movement. “We are the perfect internal enemies because we are everywhere, and you can’t tell us apart from ordinary people.”
The new legislation casts a wide net over activity the government may find threatening. It lacks a definition of what exactly constitutes “non-traditional sexual relationships,” and Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina has even suggested this could also include oral sex. Furthermore, the phrase “among minors” has been interpreted under regional gay propaganda laws to apply to essentially any public space.
Alekseyev said that regional gay propaganda laws have been used as tools of political repression, not as safeguards against corrupting children. The activist was himself fined in 2012 under St. Petersburg’s law against gay propaganda among minors after he stood in front of city hall holding a sign with a quote from Soviet actress Faina Ranevskaya, “Homosexuality is not perversion. Perversion is hockey on the grass and ballet on the ice.”
The federal gay propaganda law will hit LGBT activists with stiffer fines, lead to even more arrests at street rallies and possibly exacerbate the beatings they already face at the hands of counter-protesters. For the past eight years, police have broken up annual attempts by Alekseyev and other activists to hold a gay pride parade in Moscow, including an attempt this May that resulted in more than thirty arrests. Most recently, at a June 11 action against the gay propaganda law outside the State Duma building, LGBT activists were pelted with eggs, bundles of nettles and condoms filled with excrement, and several were assaulted by gangs of teenage boys. At one rally, Kostyuchenko was beaten so severely she started to lose her hearing, although she has since recovered it almost entirely, she said.
Even at Kostyuchenko’s “Day of Kisses” rallies, where LGBT couples and supporters kiss in public, anti-gay protesters have thrown eggs and beaten those locking lips, and several LGBT activists have been arrested.
“Every time, you go out with a sign and wait to get beaten,” Kostyuchenko said. “I wanted to think up an action that would be nice to go to. But kisses turned out to be more dangerous than signs.”
Despite the arrests and beatings, Alekseyev says parades and other street actions have raised the issue of LGBT rights in society, attracting support from journalists and opposition leaders and improving the media portrayal of gay people. “If there weren’t gay parades, then this topic wouldn’t be talked about,” he said.
The LGBT community, however, is split over the tactic of holding parades and other high-visibility protests. During a call-in talk show on the Ekho Moskvy radio station in May, one caller named Andrei, who identified himself as gay, blamed protesters for provoking the wrath of mainstream society. “Alekseyev and those like him have done much more for the discrediting of the LGBT movement than all the homophobes together,” Andrei said.
Speaking at Nashe Kafe, Sasha called gay pride parades a “prank meant to annoy people” and said that most ordinary homosexuals don’t approve of Alekseyev and his methods. “When there’s a plague in the country, why do we need a parade? Here and now it’s not needed,” he said.
According to Polina Andrianova, an activist with Coming Out, a St. Petersburg–based LGBT rights organization that was recently fined under the foreign agents law, the majority of Russians view gay pride parades negatively because they lack a clear message. “It’s not enough to just come out on the street and demand our rights,” Andrianova said. “They will just see it as we want to show off our sexuality.”
Instead, her group seeks to educate people around specific talking points, she said. At Coming Out’s rally for the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, about 150 LGBT activists and supporters tried to raise awareness of the fact that homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental illness.
Meanwhile, Alekseyev is trying to drum up international political pressure on Russia over LGBT rights. He’s brought about twenty-five lawsuits to the European Court of Human Rights against government measures that infringe on LGBT rights, and he plans to eventually file another one over the federal gay propaganda law, he said.
Ultimately, though, LGBT people in Russia must also challenge homophobia by ending their silence, whether by coming out to friends or joining street protests, Kostyuchenko said. In the February Levada poll, only 7 percent of respondents said they personally knew a gay person. Similar polls in the United States have found that number to be over 50 percent.
“People right now are very hateful, and with each new law they get more hateful,” Kostyuchenko said.
But if the LGBT community “finally comes out of the closet…it will be hard for the government to drive us back in,” she said. “It’s hard to find something to scare gays and lesbians with now because we’ve been scared of everything already.”
While Russia continues to criminalize LGBT advocacy, LGBT activists in the US consider what is next for the movement.