Homophobia in Russia: A Bigger Fight

Fighting homophobia as part of a larger democracy movement in Russia is not new -- in fact it's an LGBT tradition. Today we find ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary learning moment regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights such as we have not seen since the early '90s.

By inviting the Olympics to Russia, the Russian government has opened its doors and invited greater scrutiny, and, unlike back 1990, the eyes of the whole world are upon them. This is of course a good thing. But taking an LGBT-only view misses the fact that Putin's government is increasingly restricting basic freedoms for all of Russian civil society. Gays are an easy political scapegoat and as such, Putin's government is test-driving some of their new repression techniques on this vulnerable community. But this anti-LGBT hate campaign is occurring in an increasingly authoritarian regime where basic rights must be preserved for all.

In July 1991, when the plight of Russia's LGBT citizens was also receiving wide attention, a group of 90 diverse American LGBT activists took an historic trip to Russia as part of the launching of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). We met with government officials, LGBT grassroots activists from all over the country, and held a joint U.S.-Russian LGBT conference and film festival in (then) Leningrad and Moscow, including a "kiss-in" in front of the Moscow City Hall. Just a few weeks after our delegation flew back to the U.S., there was a coup attempt and days of protest in Moscow, where LGBT activists were part of the democracy movement that helped bring down those iconic Stalin and Lenin statues, and with it the Soviet Union, ushering in a new Russia. That new Russia brought with it new freedoms and opportunities for a civil society to grow and flourish for all, including a new generation of LGBT Russians. LGBT human rights activists are again today on the front lines of an enormous struggle for freedom and an open society.

In those days LGBT activists were calling for the repeal of the anti-gay sodomy law -- a law that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had on the books -- although in the USSR it actually landed hundreds of gay men in prison or labor camps for up to five years. With the help of Congressman Barney Frank and others, and together with brave Russian activists who risked all in agitating for change, we worked until President Yeltsin got rid of that law. A set of modernizing penal code reforms were established, which helped to repeal not only Russia's sodomy law, but others in the former Soviet Republics as well.

Today, 20 years later, the Russian LGBT movement has blossomed with scores of organizations, film festivals and cultural events, a thriving club scene, and even activist in-fighting! Also blossoming during that same period has been the Russian Orthodox Church and its homophobic and heterosexist focus on the family and so called "traditional values." Along side of this we have seen the imported homophobia of the likes of U.S Evangelicals such as Scott Lively and extremists such as C-FAM joining forces with Russia at the UN, dispensing their junk science and hateful wares. In the most recent years, homophobia and Russian nationalism have found an overt kinship -- both for Putin and Kremlin policies -- as well as in the society at large, where anti-gay sentiments poll high among Russian citizens. As Putin's popularity wanes, gays are a convenient political scapegoat to target as the enemy, particularly as Russia attempts to distance itself from the West in its identity. A more violent strain of homophobic nationalism is also growing, rearing its head on the streets of cities and towns, large and small, leaving at least two gay men dead over the past few months and scores more publicly exposed and humiliated via the internet.

In foreign policy, Russia leads the charge at the United Nations against progress on human rights for LGBT people, with their "Traditional Values" resolution. Domestically, Putin's party members proposed the anti-propaganda laws in a dozen regions before the national law was enacted in the Duma last June. These laws, as well as the lesser-known modifications to the adoption law making it illegal for same-sex parents to adopt in Russia, are all in the name of "protecting children." The most recent legislative submission to actually remove children from known or suspected homosexuals is the latest example of this growing hate campaign. While we can easily see through this in the name of the children protection rhetoric as extreme homophobia, these legal changes are politically popular at home because they are perceived as preserving the Russian family and Russian values and are deliberately not western.

Two of the very first nonprofit organizations charged and fined under the recent "foreign agents" law are LGBT groups in St. Petersburg -- their equivalents are LGBT community services centers and cultural festivals such as now exist in many places around the world. These two brave organizations, together with other human rights groups and the individual leaders of those groups charged as foreign agents, are refusing the government's requirement to register as such and therefore will likely have to close their official doors and pay large fines. Hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have since been charged under this new law, which requires that any NGO receiving funds from individuals or groups outside of Russia must register as foreign agents -- no matter what the support they receive is for. They have had their offices searched, or received warnings by the government not to violate this law, creating a crippling climate of fear among civil society and advocates, as well as a veritable freeze on their sources of funding.

The growing repression, harassment, and danger to the lives of the LGBT community groups and activists, is also increasing for the many other brave advocates in Russia working on a huge range of issues including freedom of the press and association, political reform, anti-corruption, and the abuses against those migrant workers brought in to erect the huge Olympic stadiums in Sochi on the land where people were forced to evacuate their homes without proper compensation. All of this in a growing climate of fear and repression.

Focusing our outrage on the new anti-gay law is proving to be a very powerful catalyzing force in politics and the media. Let's keep that up. But let's also seize the attention to contextualize these abuses and call for the broader reforms needed in Russia to keep some basic level of democratic freedom for its citizens. Twenty-two years ago, Russian and American LGBT activists helped fight together for democratic reforms for all -- that's a gay tradition we should all support.

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