The human impact of Russia's 'gay propaganda' law
Feb.27, NY: Anyone who doubts that LGBT rights are a free expression issue should speak to Sergei Alekseenko.
Alekseenko was a director of Maximum, a Russian NGO that used to offer legal and psychological support to LGBTQI+ people in Murmansk. In 2015, he posted a 19th century poem about two male lovers on Maximum's then-existent page on VKontakte - a Russian social media network. He also re-posted the following phrase: "Children! To be gay means to be a person who is brave, strong, confident, persistent, who has a sense of dignity and self-respect." The phrase was a reference to the work of another organisation that provides counselling to suicidal LGBT minors. For these posts, Alekseenko was prosecuted and convicted of promoting 'gay propaganda' online. He was fined US$1,300; Maximum was forcibly registered as a 'foreign agent' and then shut down. "To society," he said when I contacted him, "I am now a criminal."
Over 70 countries around the world have laws that curtail LGBTQI+ people's rights to free expression, free assembly, and access to information. Although Europe has generally seen some progress in achieving LGBTQI+ rights over the last two decades, the skies have recently been darkening over certain parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where legislation has been introduced with the aim of silencing LGBT voices. The Russian Federation has been leading the way.
Russia has been waging a legislative and cultural war on its LGBTQI+ community for at least the last five years. In 2013, lawmakers passed what critics often refer to as the 'gay propaganda' law; in doing so, they placed severe restrictions on the free expression rights of LGBTQI+ people and gave a tacit nod of encouragement to those who seek to persecute them. The 'gay propaganda' law is actually a handful of amendments to the federal law on the 'Protection of children from information harmful to their health and development' and the Code of Administrative Violations. The new law makes the vaguely-worded "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors" a criminal offence and provides fines of up to US $155 for individuals and US$31,000 for organisations. If, as in Alekseenko's case, this 'propaganda' is carried out online or via media outlets, the fines are much higher.
To date, there have been a small number of prosecutions under this legislation. Notable among them are: Elena Klimova, the founder of the LGBTQI+ website Deti-404, who was convicted in 2015 and fined US$1,400; Alexander Suturin, the editor-in-chief of the Molodoi Dalnevostochnik newspaper, who was fined US$1,400 in 2014 after he published a story about a teacher who had allegedly been fired for being gay; Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko, LGBTQI+ activists who were convicted in 2013 after they protested the new law in front of a children's library by holding banners that read, "Gay propaganda does not exist. People do not become gay, people are born gay."
But it isn't just about prosecutions. The 'gay propaganda' law is about fostering intolerance, and changing the way society views some of its most vulnerable members.
But it isn't just about prosecutions. The 'gay propaganda' law is about fostering intolerance, and changing the way society views some of its most vulnerable members. Russian lawmakers have been aided and abetted in their campaign against LGBTQI+ people by high profile, ostensibly non-political figures. In 2013, the TV presenter Dmitriy Kiselyov (now head of Russia Today, the government's news agency) announced on-air that gay people should be banned from donating blood and sperm and that their hearts should be burned instead of used for organ donation. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, claimed in 2016 that the rise of ISIS/Islamic State was due to the world's acceptance of homosexuality.
According to a 2015 poll conducted by state-run pollster VTsIOM, this actual propaganda is working: 80% of Russians are now against gay marriage (an increase of over 20% since 2005); 20% of Russians think that LGBTQI+ people are "dangerous" and therefore must be "isolated from society" (up from 12% in 2005); and an astonishing 41% believe that LGBT people should be persecuted by the authorities in order to "exterminate the phenomenon."
Even more alarmingly, other statistics show a reported increase in attacks on LGBT people.
Russia's homophobic law-making didn't end in 2013. In 2014, LGBTQI+ couples were banned from adopting; in 2015, transgender people were banned from driving and a draft law was introduced which, if passed, would effectively outlaw 'coming out'.
Tatiana Vinnichenko, a teacher, is chairperson of the Russian LGBTQ Network. Her organisation recently collaborated with other Russian LGBT groups to submit a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which details all the ways in which LGBTQI+ people are discriminated against in Russia. She told me how the recent surge in anti-LGBT sentiment had affected her own life and work.
The Oslo Times International News Network