By Hayato Watanabe
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia ignited a conflict-ridden and violent discussion about the status of LGBT rights in the country. News of hate crimes and protest crackdowns sparked a firestorm of outrage among international and local gay rights activists, who are calling for greater scrutiny of the Putin administration. But the consequences of the LGBT struggle in Russia extend even beyond the violence seen on TV.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia is spiraling out of control, and LGBT communities are some of the most seriously affected. From 2002 to 2012, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Russia has increased an astounding 41%, with the numbers of those infected towering over 1.3 million. The Putin administration is ignoring the needs of this community, and is worsening the epidemic by promoting laws that stigmatize homosexuality. Greater international attention must be brought to the relationship between Russia’s homophobic politics and public health. The Russian government must be pushed towards more equitable policies on both LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues.
Recently, global infection statistics have declined in historically hard-hit areas such as India and South Africa. Sadly, this trend has not made it to Russia – the infection rate there has increased 7% just this year. These new HIV cases are a direct result of Russia’s policies. They refuse adequate HIV/AIDS services, stop information about safe sex, and shun the LGBT community into fearing violence, or even death.
Russia has passed legislation that bans the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors. In reality, any sign of sexual nonconformity, at any age to any audience, is met with brutal repression. Gay rights activists have widely condemned the law since its passage in June 2013, but Russian officials have shown no intention of backing down from their hardline stance on gay rights.
If Russian lawmakers cannot look to their own consciences on the issue of LGBT discrimination, maybe they will listen to statistics, or to the cries of the international when the devastating consequences of this law are fully realized.
Health activists are concerned that ratcheting up anti-LGBT rhetoric, in addition to fanning the flames of anti-LGBT hysteria, will impede the dissemination of accurate AIDS awareness information. This will affect the ability of health professionals to reach individuals who have been affected by HIV/AIDS or who might be at risk.
Russia’s law reinforces the narrative that LGBT people are not deserving of respect and equality. By further engendering a culture of shame, the law may cause individuals seeking testing and treatment to conceal their homosexuality, or to falsely attribute their status to other methods of transmission (such as injection drug use), in order to avoid the stigma of being gay.
Misreporting or underreporting created by an environment of fear and shame constrains the ability of health professionals to properly study and address the HIV/AIDS crisis. Additionally, the conflation of HIV stigma and gay stigma may even stop heterosexual people from seeking testing. These policies obscure how many diverse communities grapple with this epidemic, and will have disastrous consequences down the line. Along with country's failure to address drug addiction that also spreads HIV/AIDS, Russia's stance on the LGBT community is repressive and backward.
Unfortunately, the outlook appears bleak. The ongoing conflict in Crimea has destabalized relations between Russia and the international community, diminishing hope that Russian lawmakers can be lobbied to repeal the anti-gay propaganda law or allocate more funds to battle the HIV/AIDS crisis.
While the world is obsessed with debating whether Russia’s takeover of Crimea constitutes an act of war, Russia is waging another war – one against its own LGBT people. The Russian government is advancing a health agenda that neglects the needs of one of its most vulnerable communities and treats them like second-class citizens.
Russia needs to repair its approach to public health and its fractured relationship with its LGBT citizens. The country could start by repealing the anti-gay propaganda law. Ending stigma and inspiring openness will not only increase testing, it will also encourage greater awareness of HIV/AIDS related issues.
The Russian government must also ensure there are ample resources available to educate the public and help those grappling with HIV/AIDS. For example, the government could sponsor initiatives that provide access to accurate sex education. Accurate knowledge is the first critical step towards ending this global epidemic. The government should also subsidize medications such as post-exposure prophylaxis, which can actually prevent transmission in high-risk situations. Finally, ensuring that HIV positive people have access to medication is critical, because maintain low viral loads can affect how easily the virus is spread.
Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law is shameful – and it’s also an example of shockingly bad policy. The government’s intransigence on the issue of LGBT rights challenges the “it gets better” idealism trumpeted by the larger international gay rights movement. Rather, things seem to be moving backwards in Russia, impeding the country’s ability to stop an epidemic. As some LGBT Russians might say, “it gets better everywhere but here.”
Hayato Watanabe is a graduate student at the NYU Department of Politics. He specializes in human rights and critical race theory.