In June 2013, just months before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed what became known as the “gay propaganda law,” arguing that “nontraditional sexual relations” were a danger to children, the family and society. The law, Putin claimed, would uphold “traditional values.”
On paper and compared to a spectrum of anti-gay laws in some other countries, this new law was not the worst. It made the sharing of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” an administrative, not criminal, offense, punishable with a fine, not imprisonment. But its most harmful effects are insidious. It effectively excluded a vulnerable minority from full participation in society and gave state sanction to their status as outsiders.
The well-founded fear of activists in Russia was that the law would not only restrict freedom of expression, but would send a message that the government condoned homophobia, leaving gay people vulnerable to violence and abuse.
And that is exactly what happened.
The passage of the law coincided with a ratcheting up of homophobic rhetoric in state media and a dramatic increase in attacks by vigilante groups and individuals. Vigilantes preyed on young gay men, lured them via dating apps to fake rendezvous, and beat, humiliated and tortured them. The attackers filmed these attacks, and posted the footage on social media, including images of themselves attacking the men they perceived as gay, confident in their impunity. As expected, the police failed to recognize the attacks as hate crimes.
In passing the law though, the Russian Duma did not seem to anticipate the uproar that became the most enduring image of the Sochi games. Protests took place in cities across the globe and, under pressure, the International Olympic Committee said it was open to expressly forbidding discrimination on grounds of “sexual orientation” in the Olympic charter, which it subsequently did. Media coverage of the games put an enormous spotlight on LGBTQ Russians, with some going so far as to call the games the “gay Olympics.” Putin’s moment of anticipated glory, for him and for Russia, was clouded by the outcry against this law.
Indeed, the passage of the law sparked more international outrage than other serious human rights violations committed during preparations for other Olympics, including abuse against migrant workers, local residents, and protesters.
But despite the furor, the facts on the ground for LGBTQ Russians were not changed. The four years since Sochi have been marked by discrimination and brutal anti-gay violence, and while the focus of the international media has long ago moved on, Putin’s “traditional values” continue to do immeasurable damage.
For the Kremlin the law was classic political homophobia – a way of consolidating their conservative support base in Russia and, internationally, to forge an anti-Western alliance under the rubric of “traditional values.” This has been an effective and damaging strategy, that seeks to undermine the universality of rights, by suggesting that rights are subordinate to cultural norms, and subjective moral values. In Russia’s attack on human rights norms, LGBTQ people are a lightning rod ― portrayed as the antithesis of morality and culture.
The propaganda law also provided some of the rhetorical justification and presumed political cover for a violent anti-gay purge in Russia’s Chechen Republic that took place last year. Police and security officials rounded up men presumed to be gay, tortured them in informal facilities, mined their social media accounts for the names of others, and detained them. Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been ruling Chechnya through brutal repression with the Kremlin’s blessing, fluctuated between denying there were any gay people in Chechnya, and justifying the purge as a social cleansing ritual. Through public rituals of humiliation in front of senior male relatives, the purge symbolically and violently reasserted notions of traditional masculinity in Chechnya. The level of brutality, and the direct involvement of high ranking officials, was chilling.
One victim recalled being hauled before male relatives: “[Officials] shout abuse at you, call you names, the most offensive names, and they order you to step forward, admit it to your relatives, admit that you’re gay.” Detainees were then released to elder male relatives, and their captors encouraged families to commit so-called “honor killings.”
Commenting on his childhood socialization, Kadyrov, who projects his own version of strongman masculinity, said: “This is how they teach us from childhood. My father told me when I was a little boy, ‘If you’re coming home because you got scared, don’t come home. I have no need for you. You’re not a girl, you’re a man.’”
Sustained international pressure ultimately compelled the Kremlin to ensure the suspension of the purge by Chechen authorities and open a federal inquest. That inquest has been a non-starter, but the crimes have not gone completely unheeded. Both Kadyrov and Ayub Kataev, an official in the Chechen Internal Affairs Ministry who allegedly operated one of the unlawful detention facilities, were sanctioned under the United States government’s Magnitsky Act, which allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals in Russia responsible for human rights violations.
But for men caught up in the purge, their lives have been shattered. Some were fortunate enough to escape to bigger metropolitan centers in Russia, and from there some were resettled in other countries. As of October, Russia’s leading LGBTQ support group said they had helped evacuate at least 79 people affected by the purge.
In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the “gay propaganda” law and ordered the government to pay restitution to three plaintiffs ― a decision that Russia is obligated by treaty to respect ― but Russian courts continue to punish people under the law. At least seven people have been convicted in the last year alone, including for years-old Facebook posts.
However, a recent video sensation showed that ordinary Russians value their freedom to laugh over so-called “traditional values.” In January, footage of freshmen air transport cadets performing a homoerotic parody to the song ”Satisfaction” went viral and caused a scandal in Russia. When participants were threatened with disciplinary action, other groups – including construction workers, agricultural students and stable hands ― made similar campy, parody videos in support. In the face of these viral acts of solidarity poking fun at the hallmarks of hegemonic masculinity, authorities backed down, and the cadets will not be charged.
This protest, like those around the Sochi Olympics, showed the Russian government is not immune to pressure. But absent permanent reform, the propaganda law remains a tool for repression. And it’s the obligation of the international community to not let that stand.
The Olympics may have moved on, but LGBTQ Russians don’t have that luxury.
Graeme Reid is director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch.