Russia’s Closet: The Politics Behind a Ban on Gay “Propaganda”

BY Brett Edward Stout

March 30 2012 1:02 PM ET

Days before the United Nations held its first panel on LGBT rights, the St. Petersburg assembly passed a law banning any public activity (including what happens online) that promotes homosexuality, sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender identity, as well as any display of homosexual conduct that could potentially be seen by minors (which the lawmakers dubbed as promoting pedophilia). The bill was signed into law by St. Petersburg governor Georgiy Poltavchenko and took effect March 12. Many have started to look back on how exactly things got to where they are today. The answer: politics, and the rise of religious conservatism in Russia.

In 2008, two years after Moscow denied a permit to the first Gay Pride Parade, a bill to ban gay propaganda in Ryazan was introduced into the local assembly. The bill did not define what qualified as gay propaganda, and proponents presented it as a bill to protect children from the threat of homosexuality. Activists united to oppose the law, challenging it on constitutional grounds. However, in March of 2010, the Russian Constitutional Court dismissed a case opposing a Ryazan law banning so-called “propaganda of homosexuality.”

Activists quickly pointed out that the law seemed a clear violation of Russia’s Constitution Article 29 – freedom of speech, Article 19 – the ban on discrimination, and Article 55 – the ban on local governments infringing on the rights of minorities. Arkhangelsk and Kostroma signed similar laws in 2011, and in November of that year, Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, proposed its own ban on “gay propaganda,” which passed the city’s assembly by a two-thirds margin.

Moscow has yet to hold a legally sanctioned gay pride parade and, with the new law, the chances it will any time soon seem even less likely. On March 29, a federal version of the “gay propaganda” law was introduced in the lower house (the Duma) of the Russian Parliament.

The Western Wind
The emergence of this law has taken some in the international community by surprise and has raised many questions. The most asked question is, “Why now?” In an interview with The Advocate, Andre Banks, executive director of the international advocacy group AllOut, which created the much-publicized public service announcements on the issue, offered this theory: “There is one particular advantage. The law has public support and is a populist issue. It was no surprise that this issue came around at the time of a very contentious election in Russia.”

Indeed, the 2012 election in Russia saw some of the largest opposition protests in the country’s history. Dozens of unprecedented political protests, some estimated as large as 25,000 people, condemned the Conservative Party, United Russia and even Vladimir Putin in the months before the March elections. Many see this election as not just about the Conservative Party staying in power but also as a move by Russia to differentiate itself culturally from the West. Putin’s determination to show his independence is even the subject of a new BBC series Russia, Putin and the West. Ironically, the law Russia’s Conservative Party is using to flex its cultural differences was born not in the Motherland, but in the U.S.

Pouncing on antigay momentum around the 2006 ban on the Moscow Pride parade, American evangelist Scott Lively wrote a letter to the Russian people after completing a speaking tour in the country. Through his speaking engagements, Lively closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodox church and his influence is still evident. Many will remember Lively as the origin of what became Uganda’s Bill 18, also known as the notorious “kill the gays” bill. In his letter, Lively elaborated that, “The purpose of my visit was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement which has done much damage to my country and which has now taken root in Russia. This is a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.” Through his tour, Lively closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodoxy and presented its adherents with a road map to protect themselves from what they saw as gay propaganda.

Of the several steps he lays out, the third is this: “Criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. My philosophy is to leave homosexuals alone if they keep their lifestyle private, and not to force them into therapy if they don’t want it. However, homosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage 'gay pride' parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.” Play by play, the Russian Orthodoxy has taken Lively’s blueprint and is acting swiftly on his urging “to protect their country from the gay movement.”

The Rise of Russian Religious Conservatism
In the years since Yeltsin turned the reigns over to his successor, Putin, Russia has drifted toward the right. However, in the last four years, that slow drift has turned to a sprint. Polina Savchenko, general manager of the St. Petersburg advocacy group Coming Out, says, “There is a clear tendency in Russia's both external and internal politics to move toward more ultra-right ideas; clerical, traditionalist discourse is finding its way into legislation.”

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