A Gay Rights Mountain to Climb?
On 29 June 2013, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among people below the age of consent (18 years). For breaking the law, especially in the mass media or on the internet, individuals can be fined up to one million roubles. Foreign citizens can be detained for up to 15 days and deported back to their country, in addition to being fined up to 100,000 roubles. The law was supported by 436 members of the Russian Parliament (Duma), and only one abstained. Before the federal law was signed, similar laws banning the propaganda of homosexuality had already been adopted in several other parts of the Russian federation.
Support for the law is widespread across the country. A poll conducted by the independent Levada-centre in April 2013 shows that the number of people who think that homosexuality is either a ‘bad habit’ or a ‘disease’ has consistently grown since 1998. This data concurs with the results of the poll conducted by the Foundation of Public Opinion in June 2011: 61 per cent of respondents across all age groups agree with the authorities that gay parades should be banned. Men aged 18-24 years old oppose gay parades most: 71 per cent of them support this statement. Moreover, along with NGOs and Green Peace supporters, gay people are also mentioned on the list of Russia’s ‘enemies’, domestic and international, according to another Levada-centre poll conducted in 2013. Associating gays with enemies is not a new concept in Russia.
Short interviews with Russian people conducted by the Russian TV JAM (July 2011) also demonstrate that in addition to homophobic attitudes, many Russians express ambivalent opinions about gay people, as long as homosexuals keep their sexual activities to themselves, i.e. in the private sphere. The private sphere in Russia is still outside public politics. In the West, the personal became ‘political’ as a result of feminist efforts, which has allowed for exposing private lives to the public and turning the private into a site for political struggle. In Russia, this debate about the private and public still needs to take place, as lack of it makes it easier for politicians to manipulate citizens.
The negative representation of homosexual practices in Soviet times was enhanced through their association with prisons and Gulag camps, where they were exercised to bully and dominate weaker prisoners (see Drugie, 2003). In the 1990s, the AIDS epidemics and lack of information about it did not help to change attitudes towards homosexuality for the better. However, throughout the 1990s, after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, partially in response to pressure from the West to make it possible for Russia to join the European Council, gay movements started to develop in Russia.
The recent federal law banning the propaganda of homosexuality immediately provoked strong criticism in the West. The Netherlands offered shelter to Russian citizens who suffer from this homophobic law. Madonna, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Stephen Fry, and singer Debbie Harry are among western celebrities who criticized the law and expressed support for the Russian LGBT community. The Winter Olympics have created an extra opportunity for the West to express criticism of the law. In an open letter to the PM, the International Olympic Committee and London 2012's Lord Coe, Stephen Fry compared the situation with human rights in Russia with that in Nazi Germany and said that Russia was "making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews". He called for ‘an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi’. Some western leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nick Clegg rightly expressed their deep concerns regarding the rights of homosexual people in Russia.
A growing stream of visual images is being produced in the West in protest at the law banning the propaganda of homosexuality in Russia. The UK’s Channel 4 has recently broadcast a tongue-in-cheek advertisement: Gay Mountain in which Russian homophobia is ridiculed to support gay and lesbian Olympians who are now in Sochi. This advert employs some stereotypical representation of Russia and, in particular, of Russian men as large, boorish and bearded creatures resembling bears. A Swedish advert, called Airport Love, is also aimed at promoting homosexuality and supporting homosexual sportswomen. The Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion sponsored a video featuring two men preparing for the luge doubles event.These videos have become possible because of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Before the event, the picture was different. Even international organizations that work in Russia had to comply with the new federal law. For example, IKEA edited out a picture of a lesbian couple from its Russian version of the magazine IKEA live.
There is resistance to this law in Russia too. The criticism of the law has been taking place mostly in internet-based alternative media, which are free from government control. The most recent and overt manifestation of the opposition to the law is the organization of the forthcoming LGBT Sports Games which take place from 26h February- 2nd March 2014 in Russia.
What needs to be done:
• The Winter Olympics in Sochi should be used as an opportunity (1) to heighten the visibility of LBGT groups in Russia; (2) to positively portray homosexuals and bisexuals in visual and other materials related to the Winter Olympics as much as possible; and (3) to criticize the recent homophobic laws against the propaganda of homosexuality.
• LBGT Sports Games on 26 February- 2 March 2014 in Russia should be supported by international community.
• Western media organizations should help by encouraging a debate in Russian media about the personal as political
Dr Natasha Rulyova
Lecturer in Russian
Centre for Russian and East European Studies