Russia’s anti-gay laws no laughing matter

The gay community is one of the most vulnerable minorities in Russia, and homophobia is one of the country’s most rampant prejudices. According to Levada centre research, around 74 per cent of Russian citizens consider members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community to be “dissolute” and “mentally retarded”.

Mike Kireev - DemotixRussian lawmakers seem to agree with this prejudice and plan to pass a federal law “against the promotion of homosexuality”.

The law forbids exposing underage Russians to information about homosexuality and, moreover, about the fact that “traditional and non-traditional relationship(s) are socially equal” (sic). Anyone exposing children under 18 to “homosexual propaganda” should expect to pay the price: LGBT NGOs can be fined up to 500 thousand roubles (10, 782 GBP) and activists up to 50 thousand roubles (1007 GBP).

The law already exists in the cities of Ryazan, Archangelsk and Kostroma. In March it was passed in St Petersburg by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov, prompting a furious response from human rights activists and the civil society. The European Parliament says the law “violates freedom of expression regarding sexual orientation”, and the US State Department has called for respect towards LGBT activists in the country.

But the only response they received from Russian authorities was announcing plans to pass the law nationwide; forbidding another gay pride in Moscow and triggering several bizarre examples of the law’s misuse. Here are just a few:

United Russia v Madonna

DemotixVitaly Milonov came after pop star Madonna, after she used a 9 August concert in the city to speak out against St Petersburg’s anti-gay law. During her performance, Madonna yelled out her message of support to the crowd:

“I am here to say that the gay community and gay people here and all around the world have the same rights — to be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with compassion, with love,”

The pop star was not only outspoken about gay rights during her trip, she also donned a balaclava and called for the release of Pussy Riot during a 7 August show in Moscow. Milonov’s Ultranationalist associates from the Narodny Sobor organisation filed a civil law suit against Madonna demanding 333 million roubles (about £6.5m ) to compensate for “moral damage” caused by “promoting homosexuality”, arguing that this would cause lower birthrates and subsequently destroy Russia through eroding its military. Milonov’s case was thrown out by Moscow’s district court in St Petersburg on 22 November.

Meanwhile, Milonov is keeping alive the fight against LGBT-friendly pop stars: He has made it clear that minors won’t be making it to Lady Gaga’s 9 December performance in St Petersburg, having warned concert organisers that no one under 18 should be allowed into the concert.

Homosexuality v Field Hockey

The first implementation of the law in St Petersburg happened in May 2012, when gay pride organiser and rights advocate Nikolay Alexeev staged a single picket holding a placard with a quote from iconic Russian actress Faina Ranevskaya:

“Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is field hockey and ballet on ice”.

Alexeev, a professional lawyer, was fined five thousand roubles (approximately £100) for “promoting homosexuality”. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) slammed the ban on gay-prides in Moscow, but Russia’s courts have ignored the ECHR’s decision. ECHR is yet to rule its decision on the controversial law.

Nationalists v milk

Lead by Milonov’s assistant Anatoly Artyukh, the local chapter of Narodny Sobor filed a complaint against a dairy company with the prosecutor’s office in St Petersburg, alleging that its packaging began to feature a rainbow after the city passed the ban in March. The group claims that Vimm-Bill-Dann dairy company promotes homosexuality by producing dairy products with a rainbow — a symbol of the LGBT community — on the packaging. “That’s an open propaganda of vice,” — Artyukh told Interfax news agency, adding that he, together with his fellow activists, will be preventing St Petersburg citizens from buying the company’s products. However, the dairy company denies the allegations, saying that the rainbow is nothing more than a rainbow.

Braces v rallies

Pavel Samburov, one of Moscow’s leading LGBT activists and deputy head of Rainbow Association NGO told Index that it’s unlikely that St Petersburg’s anti-LGBT laws would be passed nation wide by the State Duma. Samburov claims the law aims to “to frighten and discriminate” against members of the LGBT community “rather than focusing on implementing them heavily. “St Petersburg authorities claim 73 people have been fined for promoting homosexuality” but Samburov doubts these statistics, adding “[the] gay community is very united in Russia and is likely to know at least something about each case, but none of us know about the [other] 72 cases, only Nikolai Alexeyev‘s prosecution”.

One of Samburov’s friends was threatened by St Petersburg police after participating in demonstrations for human rights in the city on 1 May — for wearing rainbow coloured braces. He was fined 500 roubles (£10) in the end, not for breaking the gay propaganda law, but for “breaking [the] rules of participating in rallies”. While the application of anti-gay laws has brought about some ridiculous cases, Samburov explained why the law is no laughing matter:

“The law might seem funny in its misuse with Madonna, dairies or others targets, but after it was passed LGBT people in St Petersburg faced more pressure, especially in schools and medical institutions — people were told day by day they were not welcome at work and finally had to quit  because they couldn’t deal with such psychological pressure. The other consequence has been that assaults against LGBT people in streets and near gay clubs became more frequent.”

United Russia deputy threatens to sue Madonna for supporting Russian gay community

Saint Petersburg authorities have surpassed their colleagues throughout Russia in persecuting gay community by passing a local law that actually forbids any LGBT activities, including pride parades and human rights activism, and by planning to make this ban Russia-wide.

Last week a scandalous law “against promotion of homosexuality” came into force in Saint-Petersburg. It stipulates fines up to 500 thousand roubles (£10,782 GBP) for any activities that can be referred to as “public propaganda of homosexualism, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors”. According to Saint-Petersburg lawmakers, such propaganda means mass and unregulated distribution of information which might prove that “traditional and non-traditional relationship are socially equal”.

Human rights activists have expressed numerous concerns over the law as any public move of gay community may accidentally be seen, heard or read by minors, which means that any public move may be punished by fines — potentially disastrous for financially stretched gay rights groups.

The latest concern has been expressed by Madonna who is coming to perform in Saint Petersburg in August. On her Facebook page she wrote that she will “speak up for the gay community, to support the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed”. She called Saint-Petersburg law a “ridiculous atrocity” and promised to speak about it during her show in the city.

The law author — Vladimir Putin’s United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov — said Madonna and her concert organisers are most likely to face fines and that he “will have to attend her concert to monitor the concert’s moral content”. Previously Milonov mentioned he had planned forbid Rammstein concerts in Saint-Petersburg.

Together with his colleagues Vitaly Milonov is planning to introduce a bill to the Russian State Duma banning “homosexual propaganda” across Russia. “United Russia” has a majority in State Duma, and rights activists fear that such federal law could pass.

Today “antihomosexual” laws, similar to the one passed in Saint-Petersburg, already exist in Ryazan, Archangelsk and Kostroma regions, but none of them has caused such a wide and scandalous response from civil society yet.

The passing of the law in Saint Petersburg was marked with a number of protest actions in Russia. The European Parliament has condemned the law, stating it “violates the freedom of expression regarding sexual orientation”, which is against European Convention on Human Rights. The US State Department has appealed to Russian authorities calling them to respect the rights of gay community in Russia instead of violating them.

The Kremlin doesn’t seem to take these statements seriously, and nor do Russia’s federal TV channels. TV remains the most popular media for most Russians, and channels don’t comply with objectivity rules when covering topics concerning LGBT people. That is why some 75 per cent of Russian citizens, according to SuperJob research centre survey, support the law against homosexual propaganda.

None of Russian cities has ever held a sanctioned gay pride. All were unauthorized and ended up with their participants beaten by aggressive ultranationalists and religious activists or arrested by police.

The only sanctioned action when LGBT people could march through the city with flags and placards was a 4 February march against Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in Moscow. Tens of thousands people marched through one of the central streets in columns of diverse opposition and civil movements, including the gay community. And even there, during an event which was meant to celebrate democratic values and freedom of expression, gays received tellings-off and disrespectful jokes from some protesters.

Among all the repressed minorities in Russia LGBT community is one of the most vulnerable, usually causing less solidarity, than others.

Madonna booed for Roma comments

Madonna was booed by thousands of fans when she spoke against “discrimination of Romanies and Gypsies in Eastern Europe” during a concert in Romania. She paused during her show and said: “It made me feel very sad.” Thousands in the crowd of 60,000 booed her. Read more here