LGBT Rights in Russia: How a generation will make all the difference

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee took a stand against intolerance.

The committee unanimously accepted a recommendation to include sexual orientation in the existing anti-discrimination clause of the Olympic Charter. From now on, all host cities will have to include the clause in their signed agreements. This means 2022 bidders Kazakhstan and China will have to sign and uphold the anti-discrimination agreement.

This official change to the Olympic Charter came nine months after the last, highly controversial, winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The controversy stemmed from a law passed by the Russia government in June of 2013 banning the propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations”. 

The federal law, which was supposedly passed to protect minors from propaganda promoting alternative sexual orientations, was preceded by several similar regional laws.The Olympic host city Sochi had one of the these regional laws in place.

Hosts of human rights organizations, celebrities and athletes condemned the federal law, saying that it contradicted the Olympic Charter.  But President Putin and his government were adamant about the protection of traditional Russian values.

If found convicted of distributing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender propaganda under the new law, individuals must pay a fine of approximately $120-150 U.S. according to The Council for Global Equality. Corporations could be fined up to $30,000 U.S. and foreigners are subject to 15 days in prison and possible deportation.

While the law does not explicitly ban homosexuality, it acts as justification for aggressive behaviour towards LGBT people, according to Tanya Cooper, the Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Effectively the law legitimizes the violence and the anti-LGBT sentiment and this portrayal of LGBT people as second class citizens or as people who are morally wrong and who are alien to the Russian culture,” Cooper says.

She explains that many Russian people misunderstand the law. It claims to protect children but in a majority of the population’s view is really just banning homosexual relations.

Despite this commonly-held belief, homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, under pressure from the West, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada .

On December 15 of this year, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing harassment and attacks on LGBT people and activists in 16 cities across Russia. The report found that attacks and discrimination against gay people, activists or supporters has greatly increased since the law was put into place in 2013.

Some of the people interviewed in the report had been subject to violent and humiliating attacks by anti-gay vigilante groups. Seven of the LGBT people interviewed were subjects of smear campaigns forcing them to resign from their jobs as educators or university professors. Some people stated they were afraid to leave the house.

According to Cooper, the hardest part about creating change and repealing the law is that “we have high-ranking officials, including President Putin, denying the existence of discrimination.”

At the same time, she says, the same officials are often making homophobic remarks. One such example is President Putin’s now-famous comment, asking LGBT athletes coming to Sochi to stay away from the children of Russia.

These values that the Russian government seems intent on protecting are rooted in deep tradition dating back to the Soviet Union.

“In the Soviet period, homosexuality didn’t exist,” says Jelena Pogosjan, a professor of Russian culture at the University of Alberta. “It didn’t exist as a part of popular culture, as something that was discussed and it was completely out of the range of problems people ever thought of.”

Elena Gusyatinskaya agrees that even up until the 1980’s, everything was so censored that Russian people were seen almost as asexuals. Gusyatinskaya is from the Russian LGBT Network, a Russian organization working to promote rights for gay and lesbian people since 2006. She notes that according to the prominent psychologists and doctors of the the 1980-90’s, lesbianism was considered a mental illness and that women who suffered from the disease should be committed to a hospital.

Despite some liberalizations in the post-Soviet era, the European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Russia 49th out of 49 countries who respect the rights of LGBT people in 2013. 

According to Julie Dorf, a senior advisor for the Council for Global Equality, Russia’s gay rights issue is indicative of a much larger set of societal values. She says the law is an example of pitting two societies against each other: “one that is democratic and one that is not and one that values individuals rights and one that does not.”

The broader anti-Western sentiment that Dorf is alluding to is something rooted in both old Soviet values and a new annoyance with the West.

As Jeff Sahadeo explains, ever since the issue of gay rights really came to the forefront of discussion in the early 2000’s in Western culture, there has been a backlash from Russian’s who see it as a perversion. Sahadeo is a Professor in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. He believes that the gay rights movement in the West was seen as too modern and cosmopolitan for the tradition-based country of Russia.

Now, he says, some of the resistance the LGBT rights movement has faced, especially since the country was thrown into the international spotlight with the Olympics, is based on an annoyance with the West. In fact, he thinks that the propaganda law becoming an international issue and causing so much trouble for Russia pushed the country even deeper into the anti-West sentiment.

“They hate when the West gets on their moral high horse and talks to Russians about how they’re not as good as the West.”

Part of the solution to this problem seems to be for Western organizations to back off from the campaigning and either leave it to the domestic Russian activists or to collaborate with them more. As Sahadeo points out, Russian gay activist organizations, like the Russian LGBT Network, do exist and are functioning despite the propaganda law.

Part of the issue between the domestic and international activists is that Russian activists want to avoid getting caught up in the greater East vs. West ideological struggle, according to Sahadeo.

Cooper thinks that another part of the problem is that they are afraid of being branded as trying to harm Russia’s international reputation or as trying to work with their critics, especially when gay people face such alienation already.

This extends to the idea of boycotts as well. Russian activists were afraid of being seen as even more of an outsider if they participated in the boycotts that took place worldwide in the lead up to the winter Olympics. For example, bars around the world participated in a ban on Russian-made vodka. Not everyone was convinced that this was an effective way to go about the problem, when Russian activists were afraid to participate and unable to launch their own campaigns.

Dorf agrees that something an activist says or does in the United States “is not going to change anything in Russia but actual people in Russia have the challenge and the opportunity to change their society.”

However, in order to change a society in which tradition is so deeply entrenched, an ideological shift is needed. Sahadeo thinks that it will take another “generation of softer exposure to LGBT rights”.  There are enough young, educated and pro-Western Russian people living in places like St. Petersburg and Moscow that a generation from now could present a very different climate for gay people.

“If we think a generation ago in North America, we weren’t much better than what the Russians are now.”

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