Analysis: Why Russia is defying the global trend towards LGBT equality

PinkNews logo surrounded by illustrated images including a rainbow, unicorn, PN sign and pride flag.

As several federal subjects of Russia start to approve legislation which prohibits so-called “homosexual propaganda” and the prospect of a nationwide anti-gay law coming into force, examines what exactly is going on in one of the world’s most powerful countries.

Russia seemed to be following the worldwide trend of liberalising its laws regarding LGBT people when it legalised consensual homosexual acts in 1993 and you would be forgiven for thinking that the situation would start to improve for LGBT Russians, but Russia has recently been consistently criticised by Freedom House, Amnesty International and many other human rights organisation for its newly approved laws which restrict the freedoms of LGBT citizens. The vague wording of the law means that anything from gay kisses to gay marches, which have already been banned for the next 100 years in Moscow, could be banned throughout Russia too. Russia, along with some of its former Soviet neighbours, is now defying the global trend towards LGBT rights.

Russians in general tend to have a “keep it private” ethos, in contrast to many Western cultures where it is common to speak more overtly about your private life; the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has said that homosexuality is “a private issue”. Disregarding this fact, Russian attitudes towards LGBT people and LGBT rights is still rather negative, and it is commonplace to witness attacks on LGBT people outside gay venues in large cities such as St Petersburg. In 2005, 43.5% of Russians said they’d approve of laws which would recriminalise consensual sex between two people of the same-sex, whilst 42.8% of Russians said they’d support laws banning discrimination against LGBT people (90% of Britons support outlawing LGBT discrimination, for comparisons sake).

One of the major factors in this debate is statism, an ideology which favours a strong government which controls social policy. Statism means that Russians usually support the actions dictated by its government. Given the homophobic views of the governing United Russia Party and all other political parties in the State Duma (Yabloko, the only party to support LGBT rights lost all representation in 2007), the widespread homophobia within Russian society is not particularly surprising.

No federal subjects of Russia have enacted anti-discrimination laws or legislation which recognises gay couples in relationships. Irina Muravyova, head of the Moscow Registry Office, once said: “Attempts by same-sex couples to marry both in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia are doomed to fail. We live in a civil society.”

Russia’s plans have been condemned by many nations, including the UK and the US, but given how fiercely independent Russia is, it is unlikely to bow to international pressure. Just last week it sent a stern warning to France and Britain: warning that both countries’ equal marriage plans will hinder the ability of their citizens to adopt Russian children.

Russian media also portrays a rather bleak stereotypical and clichéd image of gay people. When you watch a standard evening comedy show on Russian state television, gays are portrayed as flamboyant, feminine militant activists who should be mocked by greater society, and who clash with nationalists in particular. A 2006 poll showed that 60% of Russians proclaimed to be nationalists of some sort; it’s hardly unexpected that gay people are often seen as “enemies of the nation”. Russia, we must remember is also a nation which does not tolerate any social movement which supports minority or other social groups. Anti-racist and feminist groups are also taboo in the motherland.

Russia’s tiny birth rate is often cited as a “legitimate” reason to oppose any enactment of laws which support LGBT rights, after all, in the eyes of many Russians, approving of homosexuality means less babies. The amount of gay Russians who struggle to be open with their sexuality is already seen as contributing to the country’s extremely alarming suicide rate. Russia did however declassify homosexuality as an illness in 1999.

Nikolay Alexeyev, a Moscow-born lawyer, has pioneered the LGBT rights movement in Russia for some years. Despite his courage and perseverance, most of his attempts have failed. He has taken Russian authorities to the European courts several times over its LGBT record and in 2011 the Russian authorities were fined for their actions against LGBT people. Nikolay, who also runs pro-LGBT rights website, was named as “Man of the Year” by a Romanian LGBT portal for being “symbol of dignity maintained against the waves of hatred which drown Russia”. Alexey was fined £105 back in 2012 for spreading “gay propaganda” by a St Petersburg court. He has pledged to contest the fine and even go to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Perhaps the most unsurprising factor in Russia’s homophobia is religion. In a 2012 poll 74% of Russians identified as members of the Russian Orthodox Church, a church which can only be compared to the Catholic Church for its vociferous anti-LGBT stance. Russia’s Orthodox Church is currently working very closely with the Russian authorities on the bills which will prohibit “gay propaganda” and there have been incidents in which members of the Orthodox Church have been detained for attacking gay activists. The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has affirmed that being gay “is a sin”, and that pro-LGBT rockband Pussy Riot “were doing the work of Satan”, but also commented that gay people’s “choice” should be respected and that gay people should not face discrimination.

The Russian State Duma is set to vote on the nationwide “gay propaganda” law in the coming months, after it passed its first reading with an overwhelming majority back in January. The bill is expected to be passed and the future for LGBT Russians remains uncertain.