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.”