LGBT Rights in Russia: Legal, Social and Political Issues

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

An unfortunate reality for international sport was that the attention of the build up to the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi focused on social and political issues, and not on the games themselves. Perhaps the most intensely debated matter was the liberty of those identifying as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender [or Trans*]); i.e. the social welfare of both Russian LGBT citizens, and LGBT athletes and international supporters travelling to Sochi for the games. In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government passed a law that forbids the public promotion of ‘non-traditional’ relationships or contains any rhetoric suggesting that homosexual partnerships are socially equal to heterosexual ones. The new law has sparked widespread criticism in the international sphere, from both activists and Western governments, on the premise of its homophobic nature and infringement on the accepted (and legal) human rights of Russian citizens and ex-patriots.

This article reflects on ideas and proposals discussed at an open debate held at the London School of Economics last month, entitled ‘Pride and Propaganda: LGBT Rights in Russia Today’. The forum, chaired by LSE Law Department’s Professor Susan Marks, gave the stage to three speakers: firstly, Kseniya Kirichenko, a Russian LGBT activist with Coming Out, a charity operating out of St. Petersburg; secondly, Jonathan Cooper, a human rights lawyer and Director at NGO Human Dignity Trust; and finally Peter Tatchell, an LGBT rights campaigner and political activist. The debate gave a detailed insight into the legal, social and political issues surrounding Putin’s law, and its implications for Russian society and international human rights as a whole.

Putin’s Propaganda Law

As mentioned, it is now a crime in Russia to disseminate propaganda promoting LGBT relationships in any sense. There are many theoretical and material problems with this law. The first, as is obvious, is that the legislation is incredibly vague. There is no mention of what ‘propaganda’ is deemed to be, nor what use of it is punishable. This has led to fears that the law will be used as a premise for homophobic hate crime; Russia already makes the papers more than most states for isolated instances of such social violence, but the new legislation sets the stage for the institutionalisation of homophobia, which fundamentally breaks several international human rights laws.

The official justification for the ‘anti-gay law’ is based upon the protection of minors. This is perhaps the only specified aspect of the legislation, and again probes the idea that other issues, such as child welfare and family structures could be dragged into Putin’s legal assault on sexual liberty. This after all is fundamentally what the law is about; it is impossible, in a country so geographically large and dispersed, and with finite resources to hand, to ban physical non-heterosexual sex outright. What the Russian government is attempting to do, therefore, is criminalise LGBT identity – a modern interpretation of ‘identity’ including social cohesion and free speech. This refuses LGBT citizens the right to publicly express their sexuality, and therefore live in the same manner as a heterosexual citizen might.

This, as Tatchell commented, is not just an attack on LGBT rights, but on human rights all together. The paradox for Putin’s government is that it is impossible in the contemporary era to isolate a section of society in such a legal manner without inciting opposition. Therefore, to simplify the matter somewhat, if Putin is attempting to remove LGBT identity from Russia altogether, he has greatly misunderstood the dynamic of modern human social existence. The LSE debate brought up questions of the true motivation behind the new law; the answers were inconclusive, although ideas of a ‘cult of personality’ and ‘social conservatism gone mad’ were spoken on. An interesting thought from Kirichenko, via Skype from St. Petersburg, was that the ‘anti-gay law’ is just another tool to maintain power’; an idea of totalitarianism if one will.

Other Issues

It is important to hold in mind that, despite some isolated incidents of aggressive homophobia in Russia – which undeniably still occurs elsewhere across the world -, opposition is focused on the Russian government and not the Russian people. There were a couple of accounts given by Russian citizens and friends of citizens at the LSE debate that made it clear that, while Russian society may be more conservative than most Western liberal democracies, it should not be generalised to the extent of being labelled homophobic by nature. The problem is not with the people themselves, but with the government, whom many believe is setting in place legislation to redefine Russian social norms and maintain a grip on power throughout the country. Again, questions of motivation arise. Does Putin consider public non-heterosexuality to be an infringement on the liberty of heterosexual people? Does the church have any input into the ‘anti-gay law’? Little is clear, other than the blatant assault on the rights of the Russian people to be free and identify as they will.

Concluding Thoughts

Human Rights lawyer Cooper proposed the idea of an inter-governmental legal war with the Russian government via the European Court of Human Rights, and it seems from the evidence that there is distinct premise for such a battle. There is no need for, nor should there be, a victim – although the penalties for breaking the new law [for the individual, a cumulative fine; for organisations, termination of operations; for non-Russians, deportation] have been enforced, including on Kirichenko’s charity Coming Out. While the international sphere must be careful not to antagonise or aggravate, the individual human rights of those affected by Putin’s law – not only Russian LGBT citizens, but younger members of society whose social sexual education will no doubt be hampered – must be remembered and fought for.

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