By Morgan M. Davis
Outside of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, protestors staged a “kiss in” last week, with same-sex couples sharing passionate displays of affection in public. Inside, members of parliament voted on a proposed bill to ban homosexual propaganda. As lip locked couples were pelted with eggs by bill supporters and hauled off to jail, the Duma backed the ban, with only one deputy voting opposed.
While the bill will need to be passed by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin before it becomes a law, its strong backing by the members of Duma is enough to worry the country’s already largely underground lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Homosexuality, decriminalized in Russia in 1993, is still taboo in Russian culture. Despite Soviet Russia’s promotion of atheism and destruction of organized religion, Russia has remained a religious country, with the vocal and conservative Russian Orthodox Church leading a country-wide campaign for increased morality since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that almost two thirds of Russians see homosexuality as “morally unacceptable and worth condemning.” Similarly, about half are opposed to gay rallies and same-sex marriages, and a third think that homosexuality is the “result of a sickness or psychological trauma,” the center reported. Proponents of the ban have compared Russia to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, emphasizing the need to adhere to what they call Russia’s “traditional values.”
The small number of openly gay Russians are found in the larger cities, but even in urban areas, they face violence, discrimination, and attacks in openly gay spaces. The national bill to ban “promoting homosexual behavior among minors” merely echoes local laws that have been creeping across the country since 2006. Last year Moscow banned pride parades in the city for 100 years, citing a potential for violence. St. Petersburg and other areas banned “homosexual propaganda,” saying that minors are unable to filter and understand such information, leaving them vulnerable to LGBT recruitment. Vitaly Milonov, the Russian Orthodox man behind the St. Petersburg law, called gay people “perverts,” saying they were “trying to do [children] sexual harm.” In the same vein, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov has condemned pride parades, calling them “satanic.”
Much of the fear of the ban comes from not only its blatant discrimination, but also from its ambiguity. Supporters of the bill say it will ban pride parades and public LGBT awareness events, as well as what has been deemed as pro-gay attitudes on television. But because of the lack of hard definition, critics say, “propaganda” could be interpreted to include any expression of homosexuality, like a public same-sex kiss. Those found guilty of organizing any such propaganda will be subject to fines of up to $16,600, while individual participants will face slightly lower fines.
The gay community seems to have become a scapegoat for Putin, whose approval ratings have been sinking since he retook the presidency. In his struggle to maintain control of a continually questioning youth population, Putin has aligned himself with more conservative and morally pejorative groups. The United Russia Party, the country’s dominate party, and the Russian Orthodox Church have pushed for laws they tout as protecting the country’s young people from the corrupt West. Critics say the laws are overt attempts by Putin and his party to stifle opposition.
Harsher laws against gays may be more of a detriment to Putin’s Russia than it is to their LGBT community. The decline of homophobic attitudes in other countries has been a sign of freedom and progress, whereas a spike in laws, like in Russia, is representative of overall suppression. Other countries, like the United States, and human rights organizations have expressed concern at the Russian move. Last spring Russia drew negative attention to itself for abstaining from the endorsement of gay rights in a statement by G8 foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, the attention the bill has received has put a spotlight on activism in the Russian LGBT community. Both the national and international media has covered the story, interviewing gay rights activists and providing them a more public arena to air their concerns. Gay rights and LGBT awareness groups have been mentioned and their websites linked to in countless articles. Much like how the attention the marriage equality fights in the United States have helped drive the slow but steady increase in public support of gay rights, the ability of LGBT Russians publicize the issue could help mitigate the rampant homophobia better than if the issue had continued to dwell beneath the surface of society.
Morgan M. Davis is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant.
[Photo courtesy of Marshravenstva]