ALTHOUGH THERE HAS been a lot of recent international focus on the struggles of the LGBT community in Russia, the problems we have faced have been ongoing for some time. While there has been a lot of discussion about this summer’s “gay propaganda” law and talk about whether the international community or athletes should make a stand at the Sochi Winter Olympics this January, the Russian anti-homosexual campaigns began in earnest in the run-up to the legislative elections in 2011.
Putin’s administration used attacks on LGBT rights to divide those in the opposition movement, and to divert attention away from what had been bigger problems in people’s minds – like access to education and healthcare as well general outrage about wide-spread corruption.
‘Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’
The ‘gay propaganda law’, as it is being called by many people,has been passed in the Duma but is yet to be fully implemented. The law has not come fully into force in part because the wording of the legislation is so vague. Nobody is quite sure what “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” really means but, nevertheless, it creates a climate of uncertainty in which no one really knows where they stand. The proposed punishments for individuals found guilty of breaching this law are fines, while for organisations there are very hefty fines and forced closure of operations.
There is, however, another law that is stifling not only the LGBT movement but also civil society organisations more generally. This law requires any group that receives any money from abroad to register as a “foreign agent”. This is a label that makes it very easy to turn public opinion against an organisation’s cause, and is also a way to place more restrictions on these groups’ actions.
One of these restrictions has been the banning of gay pride parades in Moscow. Because many groups now need to register as foreign agents, it is much easier for the government to tell the story that these social and democratic movements, including the LGBT movement, are Western influences at work and that they are against Russian values.
LGBT people are being taken seriously for the first time
For a long time in Russia, LGBT people used to be simply considered freaks and outsiders, and we were never part of the public dialogue. These laws, the international backlash and the public’s reaction have made LGBT people appear ‘dangerous’, which is a bad state of affairs.
However, this also means that LGBT people are being taken seriously, even if negatively, for the first time, and there is finally a public conversation in Russia about LGBT issues and rights. Moreover, the new law helped mobilise the LGBT movement from within. Similar to Thatcher’s Section 28 – which also aimed at preventing the “promotion of homosexuality” – this Russian law has also become a unifying force for diverse LGBT groups who now feel more solidarity than ever in Russia, with new groups emerging and old ones mobilising their supporters. Meanwhile, we have been receiving significant support from ordinary people and human rights groups in Russia.
Unfortunately, as LGBT people become more visible and more vocal about challenging discrimination and seeking equal rights, there has been an increase in attacks on LGBT people by far-right groups –violence that the police often fail to investigate. I myself was attacked by a homophobic gang while protesting outside the Duma with a group of other LGBT campaigners, and my nose was broken. Even though the police caught the men who attacked me, they were released without any charge.
International solidarity: the best route forward
The gay propaganda law and the increase in violence has produced international solidarity, both within the LGBT community in other countries, but also more widely. We have gained a lot of support, and have been able to learn from the successes and hardships of other LGBT movements in their fight against discrimination.
Support from citizens of other countries and non-governmental bodies, like the Dublin-based organisation, Front Line Defenders, can increase pressure on our Government more than sanctions by foreign governments, which can sometimes be dismissed as ‘Western meddling’ in Russian affairs.
Economic sanctions or an economic boycott would effect ordinary people much more than officials in the Government. They would also contribute to further isolation and marginalisation of the LGBT people in Russian society. At the same time, it is a great illusion that Western leaders are particularly concerned about human rights and democracy. The US President Barack Obama made it very clear when he met with members of LGBT groups in St Petersburg, during a visit to discuss action on Syria, that human rights was just not top of America’s agenda when dealing with Russia.
The change must come from within
Part of what campaigners and citizens have been calling for, both in Russia and in other countries, is for countries or athletes to boycott the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. There are differing opinions on this but I, and many others, think that the Winter Olympics is an important opportunity to protest and draw even more international attention to the way Russia is treating LGBT people as second-class citizens as well as other violations of freedoms and rights in this country.
There will be a large focus in many countries on their athletes competing, and this gives the LGBT movements and citizens in those countries a chance to show solidarity with us. A boycott would make that more difficult.
So, some things have become more difficult for LGBT people in Russia in recent times, but with that difficulty comes the hope that change for the better isn’t impossible. The only alternatives would be to stay quiet, or leave the country – neither of which are acceptable options.
International help and support is necessary, but the change to Russia’s attitudes to LGBT people can’t come from a foreign country. If there is to be real change, it has to come from a grass-roots movement of LGBT people in Russia. And that’s where it is coming from.
Igor Yassin is an LGBT activist in Moscow’s Rainbow Association. He was in Dublin this October attending the 7th Front Line Defenders Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders, a gathering of 135 human rights defenders from 90 countries. Igor also spoke at a side event run in conjunction with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network.