‘Families are the most vulnerable’ A look at LGBTQ rights in Russia, eight years after the introduction of the infamous ‘gay propaganda’ law
Eight years ago yesterday, on June 30, 2013, Russia’s “gay propaganda” law entered into force, banning the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. In spite of this legislation, LGBTQ+ people have become much more visible in Russian society in recent years and there’s a lot more information in the public sphere about their lives and the difficulties they face. At the same time, state-sanctioned homophobia has intensified. LGBTQ+ Russians are regularly subjected to aggression, often incited by the authorities. Meduza breaks down the consequences of homophobia being made part of the Russian state’s ideology.
1. Legal persecution of LGBTQ activists, bloggers, and journalists
In Russia today, it’s still dangerous to openly identify as LGBTQ+ — and reporting on the lives of queer people is risky too. At the same time, predicting which actions will attract the attention of the security forces is just as impossible as figuring out how to protect yourself from persecution.
For example, LGBTQ+ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova is facing felony pornography charges over harmless, body-positive drawings she posted on social media. Tsvetkova has also been fined multiple times for misdemeanor violations of Russia’s “gay propaganda” legislation. Similarly, in March 2021, a Moscow court banned the dissemination of a video about LGBTQ+ parenting by journalist Karen Shainyan (nevertheless, it’s still available on YouTube).
A complaint about queer “propaganda” is a convenient formality used to cancel cultural events and public talks. In April 2021, police officers and radicals from the pro-Kremlin movements SERB and NOD disrupted a charity event in support of LGBTQ+ people called “Show Me Love.” SERB members also threatened and disrupted this year’s events at Russia’s largest documentary film festival, Artdocfest. The festival’s organizers ended up cancelling the Moscow premiere of Silent Voice, a French film about a gay MMA fighter who fled Russia’s Chechnya.
Sometimes, displaying a rainbow flag is enough to get you detained — as was the case when 20 teenagers were arrested in St. Petersburg back in March (local prosecutors later deemed the detentions illegal). In the eyes of the Russian authorities, the visibility and very existence of LGBTQ+ people is their greatest offense, not “propaganda” — in essence, they have no right to express their sexuality openly. In official discourse, queer people are relegated to the margins and caricatured. And any attempt to change this status quo is persecuted.
2. Crystallizing the narrative and painting LGBTQ people as ‘the enemy’
Aside from independent media, Russian press coverage of LGBTQ+ people doesn’t meet most ethical and professional standards. In addition to using deliberately emotional language that portrays queer people in a negative light, the media uses outdated terms like “sexual minorities” and “non-traditional sexual orientation.” For example, in a recent news report about the British Embassy in Moscow raising a rainbow flag, the newspaper Izvestiya wrote, “the embassy said they’re celebrating Pride Month, when parades of sexual minorities take place, during which representatives of non-traditional sexual orientations promote tolerance towards members of their community and the ideas of LGBT people.” Pro-government media outlets effectively replicate the manner in which Russia’s head of state talks about LGBTQ+ issues. Commenting on a rainbow flag raised at the American Embassy in Moscow in honor of Pride Month last year, President Vladimir Putin said: “Yes, they’ve shown us something about who works there. It’s not scary.”
Some of the media’s language effectively borders on hate speech, and as it spreads from news sites into everyday vocabulary, it becomes part of the language of conversation. Meanwhile, constant references to “LGBT ideas” (as mentioned in the Izvestiya article quoted above), shapes perceptions of queer people as out of the ordinary; portraying them as people with an aggressive ideology whose only desire is to find new channels to disseminate their views. In this context, even people who position themselves as allies — supporters of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights — often take contradictory stances. For example, the singer Lolita, who was considered a gay icon in Russia (known for singing the unofficial LGBTQ+ anthem “Stop the Earth”) has consistently defended “protective initiatives” put forward by State Duma lawmakers — including the “gay propaganda” law. Indeed, the singer has insisted that the legislation isn’t discriminatory, reiterating official talking points about how this is a legal norm exclusively aimed at protecting children.
That said, one objective difficulty when it comes to covering LGBTQ+ issues is that reporting on these topics involves a special lexicon that’s changing constantly. Russian borrows most of this terminology from English. Thankfully, in addition to English-language reference guides, there are now a number of guides on how to properly write about gender and sexuality in Russian, such as this LGBTQ+ dictionary from the news outlet Takie Dela or this free book published by journalist Sasha Kazantseva and the St. Petersburg-based T-Action Trans Initiative Group.
3. Tightening censorship (including self-censorship)
Censorship and self-censorship are a direct consequence of the 2013 legislation. Take for example the actions of the Russian film distributors who cut gay sex scenes from the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman and the 2020 film Supernova (making a story centered around a gay couple seem like it’s about two male friends who are very close). Similarly, earlier this month, the Moscow International Documentary Film Festival Doker included two films about queer people in its competition program: Her Mothers and Prince of Dreams. While the English-language version of the festival’s website directly states that these documentaries have LGBTQ+ protagonists, the Russian-language film descriptions fail to mention this theme.
Major brands have also resorted to self-censorship when it comes to the Russian market. In 2021, Adidas released part of its Pride collection — called “Love Unites” — in Russia. Unlike on the company’s North American website, there’s no information about the Pride collection on the home page of adidas.ru. Entering “Love Unites” into the search bar brings up a list of items available via the Russian online store: the description says summer is “a time for bright colors and spectacular images” — it doesn’t mention Pride Month. Employees at Adidas stores in Russia were instructed not to tell customers about the inspiration for the collection and to only answer questions “about the details of the product itself.” In an internal mailout for employees (obtained by Meduza), the company shared information and infographics about Pride Month and what “LGBT+” stands for, which also included an urgent request “not to post photos of Pride Month celebrations on external social networks.”
Nike also released a Pride collection in 2021 called “Be True,” but there’s no information about it on the company’s Russian-language website. Paradoxically, Russian media outlets write about the Pride collections released by global brands, but the brands themselves try not to advertise the fact that they’re selling these products in Russia.
4. Ongoing homophobic and transphobic violence
In 2017, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta uncovered mass detentions targeting LGBTQ+ people in Russia’s Chechen Republic. With the help of activists from the Russian LGBT Network, queer people facing persecution in Chechnya and neighboring republics, many of whom were severely tortured, managed to flee to safer places. This story later became the subject of American filmmaker David France’s BAFTA-winning documentary Welcome to Chechnya.
But the persecution of LGBTQ+ people in the Russian North Caucasus is far from over. In June, a young Chechen woman named Khalimat Taramova was kidnapped from a women’s shelter in Dagestan and returned to Chechnya — she had fled the region after suffering abuse at the hands of her family because of her sexual orientation. Despite international publicity and calls from activists to pay attention to the repression of LGBTQ+ in Chechnya and Dagestan, the Russian authorities continue to deny the very existence of this problem.
There are no official statistics on homophobic crimes in Russia, but the recorded cases alone show that violence against LGBTQ+ people is encouraged by the state. More often than not, no one is held responsible for these crimes. But not always: in March 2021, St. Petersburg’s Frunzensky District Court convicted two suspects of extorting 18 gay men using an old scheme — luring queer people out on fake dates and then threatening them with accusations of pedophilia. The Russian LGBT Network received reports from gay men who were beaten up, threatened, and extorted by local police in the Krasnodar krai — also after being lured out on fake dates. That said, there are also cases where extortionists pose as police officers and then shakedown their victims with threats of physical violence and fake drug charges. The perpetrators behind these schemes typically use fake profiles on gay dating sites to find their victims.
LGBTQ+ parents have also come under attack by the authorities. In 2019, there was even a criminal case opened against the social services employees in Moscow who allowed a gay couple to adopt children. In September 2020, Russian investigators initiated a criminal case over the “trafficking of newborn children,” saying they planned to arrest several gay fathers who became adoptive parents through surrogate mothers. “LGBT families with children are the most vulnerable,” says rights activist Olga Baranova, project manager at the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives. “Under this law, if you are lesbian, gay, or transgender and you have children, then you’ve already broken the law. That is, you’re constantly living outside the law, in fear that your child may be taken away from you. In history, unfortunately, there are examples of similar persecutions against certain group[s] of people. It would seem that these are all relics of the past, but no, with respect to the LGBT community in Russia today, they act according to the same pattern. They aren’t burning [people] yet, but, apparently it’s because we can’t have bonfires in the streets.”
There are no effective legal remedies for queer parents in Russia. If the government decides to destroy an LGBTQ+ family on purpose, it’s impossible to prevent it. The only way to ensure safety for yourself and your family is to emigrate. Those who don’t have this option have no choice but to try and live as discreetly as possible — staying under the radar of both the state and professional anti-LGBTQ+ campaigners.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart