By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Dominic’s Alves.
On June 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law which prohibits spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors in the Russian federation. The passing of the vaguely written piece of legislation is subsequent to similar laws that were passed on a regional level. Now it’s a national issue, and in turn, an international controversy that has been gaining widespread attention.
Igor Kochetov, the chairperson of Russian LGBT Network, relates the enactment of the “homosexual propaganda laws” to the chain of events that have been unfolding in Russia over the past two years, since the “mass political protests against the crooked elections and the overall growth of disappointment in Russia.”
Yury Gavrikov, gay rights activist in St Petersburg, notes that over this course of time, all kinds of freedoms such as free speech, assembly, and movement have become more restricted.
For instance, “fines have been increased for ‘unsanctioned public action’ as a way to reduce protests,” and laws have greatly limited the allowable places to hold public assembly. The anti-LGBT laws are very vague and go along with the authorities’ intentions to restrict freedom, as Gavrikov sees it.
According to Kochetov, the Russian authorities who support the “homosexual propaganda laws” try to play on the feelings of the most “conservative” and “uneducated” segments of the population, as well as diverting attention f. By promoting an ideology that it pursues under the concept of the traditional family, Kochetov explains that authorities are attempting to polarize perceived enemies, including the West, immigrants, Chechens, and the LGBT community.
Still, anti-LGBT sentiment is evident in Russian society and there have been various accounts of violence against the community. During protests, there are many known occurrences where anti-LGBT antagonists show up to assault gay-rights activists.
One recent trend has come about is neo-Nazi, nationalist movements, known as “Occupy Pedophilia” and “Occupy Gentrophilia”, whose ultra-conservative members post luring sexual propositions on social media sites for men to meet in person. After they tell the victim where to meet up, such neo-Nazi members confront him in a group and take him away to beat and embarrass him.
“Their slogan is ‘Let’s ruin their lives,’” Kochetov says of this movement. “They video-record these happenings and post them on the internet… according to our information, over 400 people have been victimized by this group.”
Part of the problem with the legislation banning “non-traditional sexual lifestyles” is that it has been attributed to encouraging violence against LGBT Russians. Kochetov acknowledges that there had been an increase in violence not only after these laws were passed, but also while they were in the process of being enacted. He also notes that people who commit violence again the LGBT community justify their actions with the idea that they are “upholding the law.’”
“Scariest of all is the complete inaction of the police, who refuse to open up criminal proceedings into such matters,” says Kochetov. “In fact, the police often provide assistance to the perpetrators of the violence by forcing the victims to refuse to testify against them. The victims of this violence are often teens, the same demographic the politicians hypocritically claim they are trying to protect.”
In addition to discriminating against LGBT Russians, these “homosexual propaganda laws” have also been a concern for foreign nationals in Russia; already, four Dutch filmmakers had been arrested for violating the “homosexual propaganda” law, and there is growing concern about what will happen when international athletes and visitors attend the Sochi Olympics.
Despite the aggression activists are not taking the heat lying down. Protests against the laws and the international scope of their enforcement have taken place both inside Russia and out.
While Yury Gavrikov was in Antwerp, Belgium (St Petersburg’s sister city) to participate in athletic competitions at the World Out Games, he made his way to the Russian consulate to attend a kiss-in protest regarding LGBT issues.
“It was not only a protest in front of the Russian consulate in Antwerp,” he says. “It was an action of solidarity and the action of sharing love. For me, it was great that it was not a standard political protest with all of the placards and shouting with megaphones.”
Participants of international protests have intended to put pressure of Russia by different means, one of which is by pouring out Stolichnaya vodka. Other activists are discouraging people from participating in the Sochi Olympics, or even proposing that the event move to a different location, such as Vancouver, Canada.
Vancouver hosted the First-Ever Pride House at Qmunity during the 2010 Olympics. Dara Parker, the Executive Director of Qmunity, says that the organization was disappointed to find out that that an application to set up a Sochi Pride House had been denied by the Russian government earlier this year, as it violated the already-instated “homosexual propaganda” regional law (which was in place in Sochi before the national law was passed).
“I think the propaganda law is more disappointing than not having a pride house, but of course they intersect,” says Parker.
In terms of whether people should stand up for LGBT Russians by standing against the 2014 Olympics, Parker explains that while each individual harbors their own opinion on the matter, Qmunity itself is not advocating for athletes to boycott Sochi.
“We’re hearing from our Russian counterparts that they don’t want a boycott of the games,” says Parker. “This keeps the spotlight and media glare on the issues that are happening in Russia.”
In addition, she does not feel it is fair to “punish athletes who have been training their entire lives to compete in this moment by having them boycott the Olympic games.” Instead she calls for individual athletes to go to Sochi and make strong visual statements that could challenge such laws.
“I agree that the more dialogue, the more media attention that’s put on this issue, the better hopes we have of addressing the basic rights and safety concerns of LGBT folks in Russia,” Parker says.
Over in Russia, Polina Savchenko of the grassroots LGBT organization, Coming Out St Petersburg, also states that her organization does not call for a boycott of the Olympics, as she believes that the event can be used as a means for people to be active against Russian violations of LGBT rights. This activist feels there is much more opportunity for people to make broad statements that could be broadcast on live television and other media sources.
Savchenko also hopes that the International Olympic Committee will be active in bringing up the LGBT rights issues to Russian leaders.
Regarding the international reactions and support that Russian LGBT organizations have been receiving recently, Igor Kochetov notes, “the international LGBT community has become so strong that it is no longer possible to ignore… International solidarity for the fight for human rights, equality and justice is a powerful force that can move politicians to action.”
“The positive side is that LGBT people of Russia have become much more ready to fight for their rights against all these repressions and violations,” says Polina Savchenko.
“People are ready to go out on the street and protest,” she says. “They’re ready to go to court to defend their rights. The momentum is there, and it’s very important for the rest of the world to not give up on us and to keep showing us the support that they have been showing so far.”
She adds that the support she and the rest of the LGBT community have received in Russia from international LGBT organizations and individuals has been amazing.
“The truth is on our side, so I think eventually, we’re going to prevail,” says Savchenko. “It’s just going to take a long time.”