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

BY Brett Edward Stout

March 30 2012 1:02 PM ET

RUSSIA Patriarch Kirill (R) and Ukrainian Metropolitan Volodymyr (L) X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMIn 2009, Metropolitan Kirill was appointed as the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. From the day of his coronation, he has made it clear the new focus of the Church would be to save Russia from moral decay. As the new Russian Orthodoxy has moved swiftly to align itself within the Conservative United Russia Party it began to strategically place its pieces on the chessboard in key positions. In late 2011, the patriarch himself created even deeper controversy about church and state separations when he personally moved into residence inside the Kremlin.

The primary political voice behind this most recent law is St. Petersburg’s new governor, Georgiy Poltavchenko. While many abstract references have been made about the dismantling of Russia’s democracy, Poltavchenko is a concrete example of this. In the last two years, both Poltavchenko and his counterpart in Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, were handpicked by United Russia with the blessing of the Orthodoxy and appointed to their posts. In the federal Assembly, the Orthodox Church has sanctioned United Russia to make other key appointments, most importantly, the new chairman of the Upper House, Valentine Matvienko.

Before the governor could sign a bill, he first needed a bill to sign. Under the governor’s direction and following the blueprint laid out by the Ryazan law, assembly member Vitaly Milinov, a champion of what he calls Russia’s “moral sovereignty,” wrote and introduced the bill. In an interview with the Russian Service Milinov explained that, “The perverted concepts about family – about society, destroys the state. Our problem – to show Europe, that this is wrong, that they have rethink this.”

But these political moves have not been without opposition. “I think that for the opposition party, their key focus is being seen as seeking greater rights. This law is one piece of a much broader push to limit free expression by the Conservative Party," said Andre Banks from AllOut.

In Russia, the chief spokesperson of the opposition party on this issue, Assembly Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, called the law “strange” and issued a written criticism of the bill's vague language: “The very term ‘promoting’ is uncertain from a legal viewpoint, hence either cannot be applied, or can be applied arbitrarily, or, to put it simply, creates the grounds for arbitrariness toward adult citizens.”

All this being said, activists argue it is reductive to say this is simply a political game. Without digressing into religious dogma, there is a philosophy behind Orthodox Russian Conservatism. It is a view that there are two different means of pursing civil liberty. The foreword on the United Russia Party’s website reads, “Our critical situation should not be bound to the motivations of temporary or fleeting temperament: e.g. the scheming of authorities, the struggles between geopolitical elites etc., but by a multitude of other, more meaningful, and inevitable motives connected to impending End of Times.”

In the eyes of Russian Conservatives, only the pursuit of the freedom to work is compatible with Russian religious traditions. The pursuits of personal freedoms (such as expression) are not compatible with those traditions. In the eyes of the new Orthodox movement, without these religious rules to govern society, civilization itself will collapse. In the U.S., it is easier to see this as the same old tired, worn-out set of arguments and assertions used by the radical Christian right (many an evangelical figure has warned Americans of the fall of civilization and against the gay "indoctrination" of children). Nonetheless, it is important to understand that for the new Orthodox Russian Conservatism movement, proponents literally see the pursuit of individual liberty as a means that will bring about the social and economic death of civilization.

As Goes St. Petersburg, So Goes the Nation
Legally, the Russian Constitution appears to clearly prohibit these laws at a local level, but at the federal level, it does allow for laws that inhibit the rights of minorities that could be deemed as harmful to the majority. A federal law is exactly what is feared at this point and that fear is spreading quickly.

In Russia, the natural progression of laws is to move through the local assemblies of the two major cities and then be presented at the federal level. The bill is being discussed in Moscow and a federal bill is also in the works. Andre Banks pointed out that this process is habit and not a requirement. The Russian Federal Assembly can take this bill up at any time and appears ready to do so.

In a statement following the governor’s signature, Milinov, who wrote the bill, name-dropped Chairman Matvienko, “Our representative in Valentine Matvienko's Council of Federation has told [us], that [he] wishes to distribute this measure all over the country. But we now discuss, that we can leave within the limits of our powers in the State Duma and suggest our counterparts to pass this law.” Matvienko, who also comes from St. Petersburg has herself been a vocal opponent of protests as a form of free speech.

Banks told The Advocate that we should approach the bill’s chances in the Federal Assembly with cautious optimism. “It will be harder to pass it at the national level but it is not impossible,” he said, going on to talk about the need for resistance. “Even if a bill like this passes and becomes law, it is absolutely critical that it not move forward without a fight. It is important that we communicate that where reputation is concerned there is a price to pay for these kinds of laws.”

The problems with the law are twofold: the language and the impact. In a statement issued by Savchenko, she expressed great concern over both the vagueness and the implications of this law. “To talk about existence of homosexuality, to publicly denounce homophobic violence, to develop a sense of self-awareness and dignity in homosexual people, to promote tolerance – all of these acts can fall under the 'propaganda' law," she said. “This law will serve directly to further isolate and marginalize the gay community and encourage hate towards a social group.”

These exact types of arguments and policies are being seen here in the U.S. as well. One need not look deeper than the headlines of Tennessee and Utah, where legislatures passed “don’t say gay” bills for public school systems in an attempt to erase the LGBT community from the minds of young people. Additionally, in Michele Bachmann’s Minnesota school district, a slightly different but similar law was repealed after a lengthy string of gay youth suicides. Community outcry from concerned parents and faculty finally prompted school board members to reconsider and implement changes in its policies.

In Russia, the law is much more far-reaching than school systems, covering the entire citizenry anywhere they go, even on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Without a specific definition of what constitutes “gay propaganda,” the potential for widespread abuse is great and enforcement will largely be left to the whims of police and judicial authorities. 

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