By Kevin Jackson
Within the past three years, the Russian Federation has managed to capture a growing amount of global media attention. A majority of this spotlight is due to the nation’s domineering response to instances of civil dissent and leftist activism. More importantly, the international community has voiced concern regarding the potential human rights violations connected with the publicized conduct of Russian authorities.
In 2012, conservative candidate Vladimir Putin won a third-term victory in Russia’s presidential election. In the wake of his re-election, thousands of protesters took to the streets to vocalize their opposition to Putin’s policies as well as scrutinize his extrajudicial political demeanor. Putin has affirmed his executive role in Russian politics since 2000 by occupying both presidential and prime minister positions as well as being the chairman of the current ruling party “United Russia.” The reactionary anti-Putin demonstrations were quickly subdued after as series of clashes between protesters and police that resulted with numerous arrests. Simultaneously, the anti-Putin effort found alternative momentum after members of the punk-rock group “Pussy Riot” were arrested while performing an unauthorized show in an Orthodox church in Moscow. The band consists of several female Russian musicians who rely on shock value and social media to spread their music, which both scrutinizes Putin and advocates for social liberalism. Their highly publicized trials and eventual imprisonment made worldwide headlines and brought global awareness to socio-political issues in Russia. More specifically, they exposed discriminatory laws and intolerant behavior towards LGBT people.
One year later, Russian authorities were accused of harassing foreign journalists and hindering press freedoms during the controversial construction of Winter Olympics facilities in Sochi. The international community also scrutinized a new law that would make advocating for gay rights to minors illegal. Putin publicly defended the ban by claiming that the intentions behind this legislative effort were to stop the exposure of “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia” to minors. A 2014 Al-Jazeera article highlighted the fact that Putin further clarified in the same press appearance that the ban would not prohibit “nontraditional sexual relations,” even though the text of the ban specifically mentions “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”.
The ban has since produced serious ramifications disproving Putin’s original media assertions. In 2014, Russia experienced a dramatic increase in social homophobia. The iconic rainbow flag has historically been a symbol for supporting gay-rights, and its public exposure is now considered illegal due to the anti-propaganda ban. GQ reporter Jeff Sharlet found neo-Nazi stickers that read “Stamp Out Faggots” in public areas across Moscow and Arkhangelsk. The ban has acted as a pretextor city authorities to ban gay-pride parades. The gay-rights demonstrations that do manage to surface come to a halt within minutes from police arrests, or in some cases, by violent, homophobic counter-protesters. In June 2013, a “kiss-in” protest was dispersed by a mob of adolescents who violently clashed with the gay rights supporters. The same Sharlet column reported that homophobic activists supposedly organized the mob because “kiss-in” protesters would be unable to fight back and would be disheartened, since young people are seen as the next generation and represent the future. This position has also been sanctified by the Orthodox Catholic Church, which is why some believe that committing violence towards LGBT members is vigilante justice. New homophobic Russian organizations have taken form over the past two years, which actively seek out LGBT members in order to publicly expose, humiliate, and occasionally beat them. These groups commonly defend themselves by claiming that their actions and intentions are meant to preserve “traditional” Russian values. The ban’s vocabulary conflates homosexuality with sexual offenders, partially explaining why the LGBTQA community in Russia has experienced such explicitly violent attacks. It may also explain why the attackers are never legally confronted and the perceived lack of sympathy for those who are protesting.
More recently, Russian diplomats have been battling U.N. policies that would provide benefits to gay U.N. employees. The U.N. has been an international platform that participating states have used to openly criticize Russia’s approach towards LGBT citizens. Writer Colum Lynch covered this story for Foreign Policy and suggested that Russia may be adamantly against this new policy in order to justify their own national policies or further promote their controversial ban on “nontraditional sex propaganda.” Either way, their denunciation of the new policies incited immediate criticism. The U.N.’s representative for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, urged other member states to “push back hard against Russia’s backwards efforts to impose on the U.N. the same kind of homophobic attitudes Moscow promotes at home.”
When digesting this narrative timeline of LGBT issues in Russia, it is worthwhile to think of what might come next. With regards to this, journalist Mark Gevisser suggests in a New York Times column that a majority of Russians are far more tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, which defies global Western perceptions. If this majority were to speak up for and along-side the LGBT minority, this could justify queer identities as well as destroy the perceived association between sexual offenders and homosexuality.
Gevisser, Mark. “Life Under Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ban.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.
Lynch, Colum. “Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay U.N. Employees.” Foreign Policy Russia Tries to Block Benefits for Families of Gay UN Employees Comments. Foreign Policy, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.
Mullins, Dexter. “LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games.” LGBT Rights May Eclipse Winter Games. Aljazeera America, 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.
“Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law.” Putin: Russia Isn’t ‘going After’ Gays with New Propaganda Law. Aljazeera America, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.
Sharlet, Jeff. “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” GQ. GQ, Feb. 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201402/being-gay-in-russia?currentPage=1>.
Speri, Alice. “Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi.” Russian Government Repressing Journalists Ahead of Sochi. Aljazeera America, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.