While Americans are celebrating emerging gay rights this year, and a favorable United States Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, Russian gays are not so lucky. Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a Kremlin-backed bill that stigmatizes gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality.
The new law bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”
According to the Associated Press, it is “part of an effort to promote traditional Russian values over Western liberalism, which the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church see as corrupting Russian youth.” It was passed unanimously by the lower house, and vigorously supported by Putin.
The new law bans:
spreading information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual behavior among children, suggesting this behavior is attractive and making a false statement about the socially equal nature of traditional and non-traditional relationships.
The new measure imposes large fines upon anyone who provides information about the LGBT community to minors. It introduces fines of up to 5,000 rubles ($156) for citizens who disseminate information “directed at forming nontraditional sexual setups” that may cause a “distorted understanding” that gay and heterosexual relations are “socially equivalent.” The fines go up to as much as 200,000 rubles ($6,250) if such “propaganda” is posted on the Internet.
John Aravosis, the author of Americablog, a popular gay rights advocacy site, labels the new bill “as one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet.” Aravosis says it is “now literally illegal in Russia to say that you are gay. It also virtually bans gay pride rallies.”
The shocking new law comes only seven months before the Russians are to host the Winter Olympics in their country, in the city of Sochi.
“This should send chills to anyone in the LGBT community who is planning to attend or participate in the Olympics,” Aravosis said.
The popular pro gay blogger has called the Olympic committee response to the legislation “anemic.” He points to a letter the Human Rights Watch sent to the International Olympic Committee demanding they enforce their charter rules banning discrimination. Russia, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, is also bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. Nevertheless, homophobia remains prevalent throughout the country.
The new law bans gay-affirmative speech, such as equating gay and heterosexual relationships. The bill applies to Russians and foreigners alike, as well as media organizations, permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro gay advocates for up to 14 days, before deporting them. Organizations face fines of up to one million rubles and a shutdown of their activity for 90 days.
When questioned about the measure, Putin was quoted in The Telegraph as denying the anti-gay nature of the bill, claiming “We are talking about protecting children from the respective information...we ask that other countries do not interfere in our regulation.” Public figures and Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church have hailed the law.
But Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev called the law a “historical mistake,” and said that it would be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Publishing a statement of GayRussia.ru, he declared “history will prove that Putin is making a mistake…future generations are unlikely to forgive.” Putin is himself divorced.
Alexeyev was the organizer of an aborted Moscow gay pride parade in May. While Russian courts have apparently banned gay pride parades for the next one hundred years, independent polling in Russia shows that 39 percent of Russians now believe gays and lesbians should have the same rights as heterosexuals.
Meanwhile, when the bill went into law on July 1, Russia arrested all 60 participants in St. Petersburg, arguably its most liberal city. Among those arrested were five same-sex couples that had attempted to apply for marriage licenses.
While Russian riot police had to step in to protect pro gay advocates, many were first beaten badly by anti gay counter protesters, who threw eggs, smoke flares and stones at those rallying. Rainbow flags were stomped on and burned. Pictures showing the blood-stained faces of rally goers went viral on the Internet.
Earlier, in the year, when Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, first considered the bill, Russian police detained 20 gay rights protesters who protested in opposition. They staged a well-publicized ‘kissing protest,’ a stark change from a January rally, which led to skirmishes and violence. Still, the bill passed unanimously anyway, with a vote of 434-0. Putin himself backed it.
At a press conference in Amsterdam in April, Putin refused to acknowledge the law was discriminatory. He stated “the rights of sexual minorities are not being violated…these people enjoy all the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.” Meanwhile, gay rights advocates in Amsterdam protested his appearance signed petitions in opposition of the new law, and staging a rally, which encouraged attendees to dress up in colors of the rainbow.
Activists have censured the new law as “state-sanctioned homophobia,” noting that in the past Communist leaders have previously branded even Elton John’s outfits at his concerts as “gay propaganda.” The new Russian law would arguably prohibit the use of the rainbow in public as “gay-affirmative speech.”
The law was passed on the heels of another controversial Kremlin move. On July 3, Putin signed into law a separate bill banning same-sex couples in foreign countries from adopting Russian children.
Meanwhile, in London last week, their LGBT pride parade included numerous protests against the new Russian law, with condemnation of President Putin as the new worldwide “Czar of Homophobia.”
One such advocate was Peter Tatchell, who is the director of a human rights advocacy organization bearing his name. Well known for participating in Moscow gay pride parades, Tatchell was arrested at pro gay rallies there four years in a row, from 2008 to 2011.
Tatchell condemned the new measure as “symptomatic of President Putin’s increasing authoritarianism and his wider, generational crackdown on civil society.” He believes that while the legislation was ostensibly designed to minimize the dissemination of “so-called gay propaganda,” the ultimate effect will be much wider.
“In practice,” Tatchell states, “any statement that homosexuality is natural and normal will become criminal, as will the provision of gay affirmative counseling or safer sex information to LGBT youth. Putin seems hell-bent on forcing gay people back into the closet and locking the door.”
Like Aravosis, of the Americablog, Tatchell says the new bill “is one of the harshest laws against LGBT freedom of expression anywhere in the world.” Americans have also begun to rally against the new law.
On June 30, one day before the St. Petersburg arrests, a first-ever Russian float made its debut at New York’s Gay Pride rally. Representing the LGBT community from Russia and other former Soviet republics, the float was jubilantly received by attendees.
“It turned out to be amazing and wonderful,” said Pasha Zalutski, the parade float’s organizer, a 31-year old Belarusian native. Zalutski, a professional translator, born and raised in Minsk, said that he just “wanted to be able to do something that would be ‘impossible’ back at home.” He added, “Here in New York, I can just publicly, openly, unashamedly say to the entire world, ‘I’m gay.’”
Yelena Goltsman, a native of Kiev, is the founder of RUSA LGBT, a New York based community and advocacy group for Russian speaking gays. She told Radio Liberty that her presence in the New York parade was to send a message: “We are marching for political reasons- because we want people to know what is happening...we hope to bring change.”