the reality of being gay in Russia
We are all too aware in the West of homophobia in Russia, but what actually is the situation?
There is no law criminalising same-sex relationships. Initially decriminalised in 1917 by the Communist Party, same-sex intercourse was re-criminalised in 1933 by the same state, with a punishment for any homosexual activity of up to five years hard labour. The death of Stalin prompted a rise in leniency, albeit still illegal, and after pressure from the Council of Europe, same-sex intercourse was finally legalised in 1993 by the then-President Boris Yeltsin. It remained classified as a mental illness until 1999.
The guise of ‘Tradition’
The current law describing the fate of LGBTQ+ Russians is crudely titled, “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”. In short, “gay propaganda” cannot be advocated for or shown in the presence of children, denying members of the LGBTQ+ community the ability to show affection in public. It’s especially insidious as it not only vilifies the LGBTQ+ community but also causally links homosexuality with children. Groups such as Parents of Russia and Occupy Paedophilia associate homosexuality with paedophilia, propagated by the law, spreading falsities and equating the two. There are no laws in conjunction prohibiting sexual orientation-based discrimination, so no-one is protected.
The law led to the closure of the Children 404 website, which was the only to-date source of counselling and support for LGBT children in the country. Children who are struggling to recognise their sexuality no longer have a safe, unrestricted space to consider their feelings. Continuous closing of anodyne spaces such as the Children 404 website contributes to the growing isolation felt by many of the LGBTQ+ community.
Image Courtesy of Lena Klimova
What constitutes gay propaganda is convoluted; ranging from LGBTQ+ activism to just holding hands in public, the list is endless. No films can show homosexual love, lust or adoration. Hidden under the facade of “tradition”, the law is enacted with harsher consequences by a largely anti-gay nation.
People in the spotlight are unable to be openly gay, bringing restrictions to athletes, actors and musicians, amongst many. At the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, President Putin suggested that gay athletes would be welcome in Russia for the historic event. Yet members of a Dutch crew were arrested in Murmansk during the filming of a pro-LGBT documentary in the run-up to the Games. The protest group Pussy Riot were publicly beaten outside the Olympic Village, during a demonstration for LGBTQ+ rights in their emblematic attire. Athletes were jeered from the sidelines during their race, just because of their sexual preference.
Yet, despite widespread international criticism, relations between Russia and the Western World were not manipulated by the law as much as one would assume. Athletes still performed, leaders still attended (albeit not many), and the games were hailed as a success.
Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia
The HBO documentary, ‘Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia’ interviews members of the gay community as well as those propagating violence against the community. Citizens like Dima, a 25-year-old gay man who is blinded in one eye after an especially vicious planned attack, try and rationalise their attackers’ behaviour: “If it’s constantly drilled into people that we are… scum and perverts, I understand why these guys shot at me … essentially a hunting season is open and we are the hunted”. The equation of homosexuality and paedophilia has become especially charged since the 2013 aforementioned law. Occupy Paedophilia rationalise their violence towards the LGBTQ+ community as ‘fighting paedophilia’, or pro-children activism. The perpetrators view their crimes as protecting the youth population, rather than a calculated and aggravated assault on a community because of their identity. A well-used tactic employed is to falsify accounts on gay dating sites and social media to arrange meet-ups, to then ambush and humiliate the target. In fear of what may happen, some refuse to use these dating sites, opting to hide their sexual preference and live in solitude. And this is not an unusual sentiment; a 2013 poll found that nearly three-quarters of Russians believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable.
In the documentary, a pro-gay activist, Katya Bogatch, offers her insight into the reasonings behind this nationwide mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community:
“Right now, it suits the state and the regime to organise this witch hunt because our economic situation, our pensions, our salaries, our healthcare, and our education are all getting worse. Understandably people need someone to blame. To stop people from focusing their anger at the authorities, the regime is igniting and maintaining this conflict and hatred. They are making people fight amongst themselves.”
Tactical blame and the vilification of communities and groups have been employed by governments for centuries; the defamation of Catholics and then Protestants in 16th century Britain, the demonisation of the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay to distract the American populace from internal disputes. Even the attribution of blame towards the Chechens since their first civil war in the 90’s by the Russian federal state. When journalist Anna Politskayana was murdered, it was blamed on the Chechens, when Boris Nemtsov was shot in 2016, the Chechens were behind it. Now, it seems, that Russia has found a new scapegoat.
Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia, has been firmly against the acceptance of the LGBT community within Russia, blaming the community for the rise of Da’esh and likening it to Nazism. With immense power over the Russian populace, the Church presides over 200 million Russians, their influence is largely unrestricted, with the ability to control popular opinion. Some have said that the 2013 propaganda law was part of Putin’s plan to draw closer to the Church, and “crack down” on dissent.
Just last year, a mass pogrom took place in the southern Russian region of Chechnya, known as the ‘gay purge’. You may have heard about it from sites like change.org or 38degrees. But, if not, here’s what went down. In Spring 2017, over a hundred men were rounded up, beaten and tortured in a remote town in Chechnya. Their crime: suspicions of being gay.
Even now, over a year later, many of those detained and tortured without access to their rights are afraid of speaking, in fear of the repercussions for their families back home.
The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, dismissed accusations of the ‘purge’ as nonsense with his spokesman, Alvi Karimov, quoted as saying, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic”. This denial is prevalent throughout other religious autonomous regions, such as Dagestan and South Ossetia.
The Power of the Media
Television is a powerful force in Russia. Out of the 22 channels in Russia, the state, or its affiliates through the oil powerhouse Gazprom, own 20 of them. And since the 2013 law, those channels have been steadily portraying LGBTQ+ activism as anti-Russian. This constant supply of bellicose rhetoric has only served to heighten anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Russia, especially prevalent in rural areas where the giddy heights of metropolitan Europe seem distant.
There is still an LGBTQ+ presence in Russia. QueerFest is an annual 10-day celebration of the LGBTQ+ community in St. Petersburg, which in the past has been characterised by violence and bomb threats. Today it still goes on, with a visible police presence more there to prevent mass violence than protect the community.
Organisations such as The LGBT Network aim to improve the visibility of the community and prevent homophobia and transphobia. However, like many other “non-traditional” organisations, they are stalled at almost every stage. NGOs promoting LGBTQ+ activism tend to be classed as ‘engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign countries’, and are banned. Even activists are jailed for their promotion of human rights. Just yesterday the UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was arrested and detained for protesting outside the Kremlin. He was there to call out Fifa for letting the World Cup take place in a country where gay football fans are openly beaten just because of their sexual preference. Earlier in June, a UK Foreign Affairs Committee Report said that LGBT fans face a “significant risk”, as they “not only face the risk of violence from vigilante groups, but lack adequate protection from the state.” Fans are warned about “heightened risks” to members of the LGBTQ+ community when travelling to Russia.
How you can help:
It is true that homophobia in Russia is unacceptable, but we should not let our press coverage of that fact blind us to the prejudice that exists here at home. We like to exaggerate other countries’ flaws to distract us from our own – have a read of ‘News & a Pinch of Salt’ to read more about our own bias.
Stay on top of what’s happening. Read the LGBT Network. Don’t be afraid to use Google and do research into new organisations promoting LGBT welfare.
The Russia Freedom Fund supports small LGBTQ+ organisations working in Russia. All of their donations go directly to those in the front line.