Understanding Russia’s Anti-Gay Legislation

           On June 30 this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”  The bill was unanimously passed by the State Duma, or law-making body of Russian government.  The law is touted as a way to protect Russian society and children from negative influence, and to protect gays and lesbians from themselves.  The law is based on the presumption that heterosexuals can be “propagandized” into becoming LGBT.

             The law is Article 6.21 of the Code of the Federation on Administrative Offenses.  It defines propaganda as the act of distributing information among minors that (1) is aimed at creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, (2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, (3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or (4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.  “Nontraditional sexual relations” has been defined as “relations not conducive to procreation,” which the Russians understand to mean homosexual.

         Violation of this law allows the government to fine individuals and registered organizations.  Fines are greater for public officials, and for anyone disseminating such information through the media or internet.  Organizations can be sanctioned to stop operations for 90 days.  Foreign citizens are subject to fines, deportation, or 15 days in jail. 

             Punishment is greater for foreigners because lawmakers blame the West’s influence for Russia’s LGBT “phenomenon” as well as for Russia’s problems with prostitution, pornography, drug abuse, and unhealthy fast food chains.  Foreigners from the West are seen as the main provocateurs, plotting to weaken Russia by corrupting traditional values, decreasing the birth rate, and increasing the number of AIDS cases.   Basically, the harsher punishments are directed toward foreigners because they are seen as the source of the targeted propaganda.

             The law is problematic because, besides being anti-gay, it is broad and vague.  Under the law, anyone could be jailed.  Parents speaking to their children about homosexuality could be punished.  Anyone who makes statements in public that are accepting of homosexuality is subject to punishment.  This includes foreign visitors.  For example, when Madonna spoke out against the law during her two concert tour in Russia in August, and passed out pink wrist bands at the door to show support for the LGBT community, she could have been jailed, deported, and fined under this law.  The potential for arresting foreigners has recently drawn international attention because under the law because of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.  Athletes, their families and trainers, could be jailed for 15 days if they are gay or suspected of being gay.  Mr. Putin has insisted that everyone is welcome at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, regardless of sexual orientation, but this remains to be seen.

             Another problem with the law is that it forbids publicly discussing the issue.  Children could be present anywhere in public, or could potentially hear or read any publicly available media.  This leaves no forum in which to challenge the law or its implications.  Banning pro-gay statements discourages opposition to the law, even within channels designed to create and administer law.  Publicly arguing for tolerance subjects the speaker to punishment, even if the speaker is a judge or lawmaker, because the public statement could be heard by children.

             The given reasons for the law are counterintuitive.  “Propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” is seen as a direct threat to Russian society and children.  But why?  Mr. Putin has cited the declining Russian birthrate to justify his actions.  And yet, the majority of gay and lesbian people in Russia conform, at least publicly.  Many are married and have children.  There is no reason to think that gays and lesbians would not raise children in Russia, if they were allowed, just as they do in more tolerant countries.

             The more likely reason for the law and anti-gay sentiment is that it is a political move by Mr. Putin, designed to draw support from conservatives and the Russian Orthodox Church, and to distract public attention from other problems with the government.  This has been a pattern in Russian politics, as every autocratic regime has found a minority group to ostracize and stigmatize. 

             The Russian Orthodox Church provides a base of support for anti-gay legislation because the church views homosexuality as a sin, and promotes homophobia.  Since the law was enacted, hate crimes against gays, lesbians, and LGBT activists have increased, and the police have turned their heads.  These have been likely carried out by the same people patrolling the streets as Russian Orthodox vigilantes. 

             Russians are generally supportive of the law.  It is unclear whether the people say they support it because of their personal views, because of the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, or for fear of being targeted themselves.  A poll conducted in June showed that 88% of Russians supported the recent anti-gay laws and that 54% believed that homosexuality should be banned or criminalized.  However, the poll was conducted by a state owned agency, so the results are questionable.  Regardless, the law is unlikely to be challenged by the Russian people.


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