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

By Brett Edward Stout

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.”

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. 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.