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

BY Brett Edward Stout

March 30 2012 12:02 PM ET

GEORGY POLTAVCHENKO X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COMRussia’s Gay History
The Russian Federation has evolved a long way since the days it exiled artist and activist Slava Mogutin in the mid '90s. Officially, Russia legalized homosexuality in 1993 and six years later it was also removed from the country's list of mental illnesses. But the country has continued to struggle with mainstream acceptance of gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people. Every year since the first 2006 attempt to hold a Pride parade in Moscow, each subsequent attempt has been denied permits, counter-protested, met with violence, and followed by arrests of gay activists.

At the first ever United Nations Human Rights Panel on LGBT rights, the spokesperson for the Russian Federation reiterated his government’s official position. In the eyes of the Russian government, they are simply protecting “the majority’s rights.” He went on to insist that, despite Russia’s ratification into the European court of Human Rights, “no international commitments are breached” by the country's actions denying gays and lesbians their rights. (The European Court of Human Rights Article 10 guarantees an individual’s right to freedom of expression.)

This same spokesperson stated that the United Nations must “respect the opinion of the majority and of moral precepts and avoid the promotion of one group over the rights of others. It’s not about [one group] over another; it’s about the inclusion of all. It is not appropriate to give rise to appreciation of special groups such as LGBT.”

Again, say American gays, we’ve heard this all before. “This is the same 'special rights' argument we have here," Stephen Grant, a scholar of gender and antigay violence, says. "This isn’t about special rights that elevate one group over another, it’s about bringing an oppressed group up to a level playing field with the majority.”

Through the fight, Russians have tried to make their voices heard in the streets. Dozens of grassroots protests have occurred since December, but most have been only groups of up to 250 people who were dispersed by the police. Now that the bill has become law in St. Petersburg, fear has silenced most would-be protesters. But internationally, voices continue to speak out. Groups like the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Association and AllOut have mobilized to keep the pressure on, calling for a travel boycott of the city. The ILGA spoke out about gay oppression at the UN Panel on Human Rights and AllOut’s PSA on the St. Petersburg ban has received hundreds of thousands of hits worldwide. Even Madonna said she plans to speak out about the issue during her upcoming St. Petersburg concert: “I don’t run away from adversity, I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity.”

Dr. Irina Kostina, who teaches Russian Studies at the University of Iowa, said, “Russia is a country where gays always were not welcome and oppressed by politicians and society. It is very dangerous to show that you are a gay in Russia.”

According to a poll done by the Levada Center in 2010, 74% of Russians believe homosexuals are mentally defective, and 39% say they should be isolated from society.

“While we’re much further ahead than Russia regarding civil liberties issues like marriage equality and the reversal of the DADT policies," says Stephen Grant, "the dangers of being openly gay are very real [in the U.S. as well]. Antigay hate crimes in America number in the thousands every year.”

Dr. Kostina also pointed out that that this issue is low on the everyday Russian citizen’s priority list. “I believe that Russian people care less about this situation," she says. "They think about the other huge problems they have. The government will not change anything. We should change the government. For Russia, it takes a long road to understand this situation and make it better for gays.”

What happens next?
At the moment, what will happen is purely speculation. No one knows for sure. Several paths exist for repeal. Legal challenges can still be made both in the Russian Constitutional Court and in the European Court of Human Rights. Non-judicial avenues exist as well. Laws can be passed that negate the “propaganda ban” as can amendments to dilute or nullify its enforcement. While both are possible, federal legislation will be more difficult to repeal than local laws. In any case, the path taken must be well executed after careful strategic planning. The darkest possibility still remains that these laws continue to gain traction and Russia’s closet will be sealed even more tightly shut in the days and months ahead. 

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