Gay rights activists hold a banner reading “Homophobia—the religion of bullies” during their action in protest of homophobia, on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, July 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Evgeny Feldman)
“Our elders and atamans entrusted me to thank you for the course our country is on and for your policies,” Anton Maramygin, a Cossack youth, said to Vladimir Putin at the Seliger Youth Camp in early August. “We see what you are doing: fighting against the sodomites and not allowing them to adopt our children. We support you in every way.” The crowd of young people applauded as Putin smirked.
Homophobia is state policy in Russia, a kind of new sexual sovereignty defending Orthodox Christian morality against the corrosive influence of Western decadence. Putin’s fight against the “sodomites” has spawned numerous pieces of legislation at the regional and federal level. Maramygin’s gushing gratitude referenced two: the infamous federal “anti-gay propaganda law” and the law banning foreign gay couples from adopting Russian children. Both of these laws have elicited international condemnation and calls for boycotts of Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics in Sochi. While the sudden international outcry is welcomed by Russian LGBT activists, many are pessimistic about the boycotts, even to the point of questioning their efficacy. Russian activists, after all, have been struggling against state-sponsored homophobia since 2006 and know well the state’s intransigence. In many ways the anti-gay laws have inadvertently midwifed Russia’s LGBT movement to national and international prominence.
In the last seven years, Russia has increasingly become an overtly homophobic society. Russia’s recent federal law banning “gay propaganda” is a creature of local legislation adopted in Ryazan (2006), Arkhangelsk (2009), Kostroma (2011), Novosibirsk (2012), Magadan (2012), St. Petersburg (2012), Samara (2012), Krasnodar (2012), Chukota (2012), Bashkortostan (2012), Kaliningrad (2013) and Irkutsk (2013). Each law bans the public display and dissemination of homosexual “propaganda.” The punishments vary from fines of $150 to $1,500 for individuals and up to $15,000 for organizations. The federal law carries up to a $1,500 fine for individuals and $30,000 fine for legal entities as well as a possible fifteen-day jail sentence for persons and a ninety-day suspension of work for organizations. The law leaves the definition of “gay propaganda” open to interpretation. Anything could be deemed “gay propaganda,” from kissing in public to counseling gay teens. ‘This law is so vaguely formulated” Polina Andrianovna, an activist for Coming Out, St. Petersburg, told me, “that it’s not really possible to know which actions are legal or illegal because nobody knows what this ‘propaganda’ is.”