There’s a lot of huffing and puffing about Russia in the media in the lead up to February's Sochi Winter Olympics. Particularly about their state-sanctioned homophobia in the guise of a recent federal law banning propaganda of non-traditional relationships (i.e. homosexuality) towards minors. What’s the big deal, you might ask, since homosexuality is still and has been legal in Russia since 1993? Well, the issue with the anti-gay “propaganda” law is that it's basically the government's not-so-subtle way of publicly declaring war on homosexuality.
Effectively teaching minors that to be gay is to have a disease that renders you abnormal, the bill outlaws public displays of homosexuality in all forms. It seeks to condemn Russia's LGBT community to a life spent in the closet and warps public opinion. The predictable result has been a rise in homophobic violence. For instance, in the industrial city of Volgograd, a 23-year-old was sodomised with beer bottles and tortured to death by people he thought of as his friends when they discovered he was gay. Many neo-Nazi vigilante groups have risen up, some of which actively hunt down gay men online, lure them to meeting points with promises of a tryst and then upload the sometimes deadly abuse they visit upon them to YouTube. Given that it’s now prohibited for parents and teachers to support them, a rise in suicides has also been reported among Russia's LGBT teens.
Since the law was passed nationwide in June, it has been a handy way for Putin to quieten the voice of the gay minority and satisfy the country's overwhelming Orthodox majority. On Tuesday, gay rights activists Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Evtushenko were convicted under the law – according to Moscow Times, the first people to fall foul of the new regulations in their federal form. The two were arrested on Monday, the 2nd of December for standing outside of the children’s library in the city of Arkhangelsk, holding signs that read: “Gay propaganda does not exist, people do not become gay, they are born gay,” and: “Homosexuality is normal. This should be known by adults and children.” They were fined 4,000 roubles (approximately £75) each and are both planning to appeal against the verdict.
According to Alexeyev, the consequences of his conviction could be huge because it opens the door to overhaul the federal anti-gay “propaganda” law by taking it to The European Court of Human Rights. Alexeyev, who is a long-time gay rights activist, a lawyer, a journalist and the organiser of the now banned Moscow Pride Parade, has previously been convicted under the same bill while it was still only a municipal law in St Petersburg.
He informed me that while Russia is already due to present a memorandum to the European Courts of Human Rights in February 2014, on the back of previous gay propaganda charges from when the law was active at a municipal level. Alexeyev has made it his mission to constantly be in the face of the authorities. He does this by seeking permissions for everything from small demonstrations to Pride parades, including one in Sochi. His requests are always declined, so he and the other members of Russia’s small but dynamic group of LGBT activists are left to stage one-man pickets, which is legal in Russia, though they still get fined and arrested.
When asked if he is worried about being sent to jail, he replied, “I don’t know. It will depend on what the courts decide to do in the future. It’s interesting for me to see what will happen. Even a woman passing by as we were being arrested on Monday stopped and read our signs and asked, ‘Why are you promoting this?’ I answered, 'I’m not promoting anything, I’m only disseminating information.’ She read it again and said, ‘In fact, I agree with you. I know gay people and they are very nice.’ She said this in front on the police as they were trying to figure out how to charge us.”
Maybe Alexeyev will succeed in taking the case to the ECHR and Russia will take the criticism on board. But it seems more likely that Russia will continue its crusade to establish itself as "that part of Europe that is not the West” and laugh off any criticism. And it is probably only a matter of time before gay rights activists will be turned into serial offenders and handed hefty jail sentences.
This is a likely scenario because in order to mobilise voters and stay in power, Putin needs enemies of the state and the LGBT community is an easy target. Putin has been tightening the screws on civil society since he first came to power and has been met with an ever-mounting international furore, since the anti-Putin protests following the 2011 election rocked his ego. The future is looking bleak for Russia’s LGBT community and unorthodox civil society, because Putin will do whatever it takes to retain his position as the self-appointed defender of what he sees as Russia’s nationalist, Orthodox family-orientated values.
Follow Milene on Twitter: @Milenelarsson
Milene's latest film Young and Gay in Putin's Russia is coming soon on VICE News.
For further information on some of the issues raised, please visit www.stonewall.org.uk/international
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