LGBT issues have taken a battering in Russia over the last year, with a number of regions introducing repressive laws against the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. The changes are part of a wider agenda to split Russian society, whipping up feeling against people ‘not like us’, says Igor Kochetkov.
Russia’s human rights campaigners have over the past six months become increasingly alarmed by the restrictions increasingly imposed on minorities and others advocating views not shared by the authorities.
The first victims of the new ‘witch hunt’ were the LGBT communities in several regions of the Russian Federation (Ryazan, Kostroma, Arkhangelsk, Magadan, Novosibirsk, the Samara oblast, Krasnoyarsk Krai and city of St Petersburg). Each of these regions introduced laws establishing administrative responsibility for the so-called ‘promotion of homosexuality among minors.’ A similar draft law is currently under consideration at the federal level. Moreover, the enforcement of these laws has already demonstrated that the concepts enshrined in them lack legal clarity, so they can be used arbitrarily to prevent the free expression of opinions and the holding of peaceful demonstrations by people defending equal rights irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. The police arrest people who call publicly for homophobic crimes to be investigated, who walk the streets with the rainbow flag and, even, who intend to hold a demonstration in defence of LGBT rights.
In view of the developing social and political crisis, the Russian government wants to make a political factor of homophobia so as to curry favour with that section of the public, which is least well educated and informed, and running scared. The wilful whipping up of these feelings could turn a general atmosphere (‘everyday homophobia’) into an important channel for social discontent, aimed at certain groups of people, in this case homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders. It is essentially a form of political populism and it is dangerous because irresponsible politicians could split society, rather than uniting it, and provoke the growth of enmity and social tension.
The LGBT community
In Russia intolerance, aggression and political crackdowns relating to the LGBT community are connected with the fact that for many centuries their ‘invisibility’ and ‘sense of inadequacy’ were taken for granted, including by the members of the community themselves. They were forced by prejudice to conceal themselves and to adapt. For a long time the very idea of free self-expression or the organised defence of their rights and human dignity seemed an impossibility to them.
The situation has started changing over the last few years in Russia. The LGBT community is becoming more visible and socially active. From invisible ‘sinners’ and ‘criminals’ they are turning into proud and free people who want to be happy and live openly in their surroundings. This complicated process conflicts with established stereotypes, which are easy to exploit in various political games.
The laws banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ are formally aimed at the protection of minors. That is the letter of these laws, but their spirit bans people from saying what they think, forbidding them the freedom of choice, and, thus, we see today that the verbiage about the law being for the protection of children is simply the letter of the law which is of no interest to even its creators or its users.
From the formal legal point of view, there are the regulations enshrined in international law and also the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which states that people’s rights and freedoms may be restricted only when it is essential for the protection of life and limb, the health and morals of others. In our case the adjustments proposed by the members of the Legislative Assembly clearly restrict the right to disseminate information. The question then arises, how the dissemination of information about homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism or transgender as objectively existing phenomena could be harmful. The idea that someone would go into a school to hand out information about sex between men or between women is unimaginable.
LGBT activists protesting this law are indeed engaging in promotion, but it is the promotion of tolerance and respect for all people irrespective of their sexual orientation. We are disseminating information about the social and legal problems endured by homosexuals and transgenders and I can see nothing immoral in this, and certainly nothing which could be a danger to life or health.
Minors also have need of this information. Sexual orientation is formed and recognised long before the age of 18. Our society considers man heterosexual from birth, so when a teenager at 12/13 suddenly begins to realise he is attracted by people of the same sex, he gets scared and feels guilty. These teenagers really need objective, popular information about homosexuality and transgender from specialists, rather than from parliamentary deputies who are unreservedly ignorant. Heterosexual teenagers need this too.
One of the problems homosexual teenagers encounter most frequently is peer group animosity. Teenagers can be cruel, especially to those who are in some way different from them. They need to have information about how to treat people generally, irrespective of sexual orientation, and the lack of this information could have dangerous consequences. The new law will not reduce the number of teenage suicides, an indicator where Russia is one of the world leaders. Our data lead us to believe that 26% of gays and lesbians in Russia have tried at least one to commit suicide and for many this was during their teenage years.
The laws, which have already been snappily called ‘Don’t say gay!’, have been operational in various regions for more than six months, over which period dozens of people have been arrested, mainly in St Petersburg.
On 1 May 2012 a demonstration was held in St Petersburg, with police permission. Ten people were arrested, so it will serve as a typical example of the enforcement of this law. Demonstrators included members of the city’s human rights organisations and LGBT activists carrying their rainbow flag.
“We will not return underground” – contrary to the Soviet Russian past LGBT activists want the government to respect their constitutional rights. St. Petersburg administration had initially allowed gay parade on July the 7th, but at the very last moment changed its mind and banned the event. Several gay activists who ignored the ban were arrested (photo Sergei Chernov livejournal, all rights reserved)
The police arrests were rough: ten activists carrying the flag were seized with no explanation and taken to a police van. As soon as the arrests started, all the people marching in the democratic column came to a halt. They demanded that the police release the detainees, but they clearly had no intention of doing this, so the organisers of the democratic column took the decision to move the Rainbow Flag to the head of their section of the march, thus preventing the police from carrying out further arrests. Without the support and solidarity of the other organisations, the continued presence of the LGBT representatives on the march would not have been possible. Among the organisers with similar democratic beliefs were: the Petersburg division of the un-registered party PARNAS, the ‘Solidarity Movement’, the Russian People’s Democratic Union, the Libertarian Party and the Regional Division of the ‘Yabloko’ Party. When they reached Konyushennaya Square, where the march was to end, the demonstration began; another seven people were arrested, all of whom were carrying banners protesting against state homophobia.
Of the several hundred marchers, only those protesting against the homophobia of Russian society and state were arrested. Although some of the protesters were told straight out when they were detained that they were in contravention of the Article on ‘gay propaganda’, not one of the indictments contained any reference to the said Article. The detainees were accused of taking part in an unsanctioned demonstration in Konyushennaya Square and refusing to comply with the demands of police officers. At the court hearings, the detained protestors insisted that the Democratic March in defence of citizens’ rights and freedoms had been sanctioned by the City Administration. The slogans on the banners of those arrested, ‘Homophobia is illegal’, moreover, did not conflict with the declared aim of the march, i.e. that any infringement of the rights of homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders was unacceptable. The human rights campaigners had studied the case files and the evidence, so they did not expect the court to find that the activists had committed an offence. This is indeed what happened and the case was thrown out. But this decision concerned only five of the activists; the other twelve have not yet been brought to court.
Legitimisation of violence
The laws have yet another clear consequence: the authorities have effectively legalised aggression and violence against LGBT. The police and local administrations often openly refuse to police LGBT events to protect the activists from the threats and aggression of ultra-rightwing groups and religious fanatics.
Moscow gay meeting, May 27, 2012. Moscow police shows real allergy to any gay movement symbols. Activists with the rainbow flag are often arrested and have to pay administrative fines. (Photo: Rustem Adagamov, Twitter, www.kasparov.ru)
On 1 June 2012 a festival was to have opened in Kemerovo. Ten days earlier, the festival organisers began receiving threats of physical violence from ultra-rightwing groups in Novokuznetsk. The organisers immediately made a statement to the Kemerovo police about these threats; this was followed by meetings with representatives of the uniformed services and the city authorities. At these meetings, the authorities refused to take any measures to protect festival organisers or visitors. Law enforcement officers and people from the city authorities used psychological pressure to try and make the organisers cancel the event. As a direct result of the law enforcement agencies’ refusal to act, the threats of violence and murder continued. The Kemerovo Festival was effectively ruined and one of the volunteers was attacked in the centre of the city. A case has been opened relating to this attack.
6 June 2012 was the second day of the LGBT Film Festival ‘Side by side’ in Novosibirsk. On that day groups of aggressively-minded young men gathered at the festival venue and made homophobic remarks about the participants. Their actions and conversations made it perfectly clear that they were preparing an attack. There were quite a few police officers present, but requests from the organisers to clear the young men from the area in front of the cinema were ignored. The organisers were compelled to send visitors away in taxis; they themselves escaped attack and persecution only by a miracle.
When the political campaign to get regional laws adopted at federal level began, activists presciently noted that all 20th century totalitarian regimes had cracked down on sexual minorities before all other dissidents. The expectation that these laws would result other groups being harassed as well have been proved correct sooner than we expected. The Pussy Riot sentence, which is so iniquitously and absurdly cruel, the law on ‘foreign agents’ and other similar recent measures are clear evidence that Russia today is closer to totalitarianism than ever before in the post-Soviet period.