Homophobia in Russia moved into the focus of public attention during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The year before, the so called “Gay Propaganda Law” was passed and many LGBT-rights organisations wanted to boycott the games and draw attention towards homophobia in Russia. Although a boycott did not occur, Russia has since stayed in international media attention because of the problematic situation with the LGBT-community since the Winter Olympics. The law which passed did not surprise anyone who was already aware of the situation. Homophobia in Russia has always been a big problem.
To understand the current situation, it is important to take a look at the history of homosexuality in Russia in general. Beginning with the Russian Empire, homosexuality was never that much of a taboo compared to other European countries at the time.
Although homosexuality was seen as a sin and was proscribed in the lower classes, individuals belonging to the upper class and were on good terms with the Tsar could live with their sexuality open and without fear. Especially big cities like Moscow or St.Petersburg had a substantial gay scene with a variety of places where gay men could meet. Later, Tsar Peter the Great banned male homosexuality in 1716, and in 1832 Tsar Nicholas I added Article 995, which prohibited any private sexual acts between two men. Those were the first laws in Russian history which prohibited homosexuality.
This situation did not change until the October Revolution in 1917. Because of the revolution the whole Criminal Code was annulled, yet not for long. Stalin recriminalised homosexuality again in 1933. The newly introduced Article 121 was not only used to arrest thousands of people of the LGBT community and punish them with up to 5 years in prison, it was also often used to extend prison sentences and control dissidents. Russians discriminated against LGBT people, because for them homosexuality was associated with pride, corruption and aristocracy. Many communists were also against homosexuality, because in their eyes, homosexuals could not be an integral part of society as they could not father children of their own. Under Stalin’s command homosexuality was often associated with the growing fascism in Europe, quite an ironic assumption, as Nazis persecuted homosexuals as well.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin legalised homosexuality in 1993 and further in 1999 by removing it from the official list of psychological illnesses. The problem was that the government was not interested in investing in education and information. Therefore homophobia was still well-founded in society, only that the LGBT community no longer had legal restrictions and could live in the open. Yet, Russian society did not grow accepting of the new legal system and so, the conflict between the newly-empowered LGBT community and the less progressive beliefs and values of most of the people remained strong.
The situation nowadays has not changed much. The current legal situation of homosexuals is that they are not allowed to marry nor adopt children and any form of same-sex union is not legally recognised, leaving the status of LGBT individuals in a rather peculiar “gray zone”.
But there was a recent change in the law. In 2013 the “Gay Propaganda Law” was passed and applies to many regions in Russia. The official explanation of the law says: “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.“ This law forbids any positive statements or comments about homosexuality in front of underage people. Essentially, if I stood at the Red Square in Moscow with a poster which says “Homosexuality is normal”, I would get arrested and have to pay a fine, since it could be possible that an underage person walks by, sees the sign and is educated about something which is against “traditional family values”.
As a result of this law, education and information sources for young people are extremely restricted. LGBT activists and organizations are limited in their actions and the situation for young gay people in Russia has downgraded a lot. Another side-effect is that many people who discriminate against gay people are getting a sense of verification from the government, thinking it has successfully answered to their calls about homosexuality.
Society and their daily life
What affects the LGBT community on a daily basis is the result a broader negativity and a hostile attitude towards them. The majority of Russians think that bisexuality and homosexuality are morally wrong, a sin and unnatural. According to a survey by the Levada Institute from March 2015, 37% think that Homosexuality is an illness, 26% that it is a result of bad habits or promiscuity and 13% that it is a result of sexual abuse. Only 11% believe that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. The results of the survey are rather appalling, especially with many correlating someone’s sexual orientation with sexual abuse.
Obviously, it is not easy to live in Russia as a member of the LGBT community. But the problems are not merely limited to incomprehension or aversion. Unfortunately, verbal insults, as well as physical violence, are part of the daily torture they have to endure. People who are openly gay or even look remotely “gay” face discrimination and violence. Especially schools are a place where one can experience a lot of violence and harassment. A project called “Children 404” collects letters written by gay young people in Russia who are talking about their experiences. The name alluded to the famous internet error message “Error 404-page not found” as a metaphor for LGBT teenagers in Russia who are often treated like a mistake and not like human beings.
A 18 year old boy describes in a letter his situation in school: One can get beaten up here even for sympathizing with LGBT, not to mention being a gay or bisexual. The locals think that LGBT teenagers either are genetic mutants or have been raped as children. When I was still at school I talked to a psychologist about it, pretending that I had heard it over the TV and my interest is purely scientific. He said that if a gay was in a class with his children he would do everything for this gay to be banned from school, and if any of his children had a “wrong” orientation he would let him be “treated” in an asylum. It is a school psychologist saying this, never mind other people. So coming out is out of the question.“ After falling in love with a friend and coming out to him, his friend told all the school that he is gay. “In a day I got to know what real cruelty is. I was beaten several times. They tried to catch and abuse me in a bathroom. I had to spend the night in a counselor’s room. I would have to run away or die if I weren’t leaving the next day. So I never told anybody anything since. I am staying at home now – I wasn’t able to apply to any college because of a mistake in my military registration papers. My parents are homophobic and I generally have a feeling we inhabit different planets.”
Such stories are not uncommon. There are even groups who search for gay people on dating sites and after meeting them, they humiliate, insult and beat them up, followed by posting a video online with the name and address of their victim. A well-known, or rather infamous, group is called “Occupy Pedophilia”.
The question is: Where does this hate come from? Because what happens in Russia is not just discrimination, because of some stubborn individuals, but an aggressive and dangerous hate which endangers the LGBT community at its core.
Religion is one of them. The Orthodox Christian Church of Russia has enormous influence on Russian society. Not only because, religion and politics are not really separated, so the church is able to influence political decisions, but mostly because religion in general plays an important role in the daily life of most Russian families. Religious morality constitutes a big part of the Russian mindset. Kyrill I., the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church when interviewed by Spiegel about Homosexuality and the Church, he said: “The gay parade is a blatant display of sodomy. In that case, we might as well promote other sins, as has long been the case on television. This degenerates public morality. It is the church’s job to call a sin a sin.” Therefore, for the church homosexuality seems to be a sin and unnatural because it does not lead to reproduction. This inability to have children, the “biological” way is for many people an argument why homosexuality can never be normal, because it effectively challenged the “traditional” family life.
It is obvious that education and therefore, schools, play an important role in this issue. Through the Gay-Propaganda Law it is now officially forbidden for a teacher to talk about homosexuality or the whole LGBTQ-community in general. According to many students, it is not uncommon that teachers do in fact talk about Homosexuality, but in a negative way. Many teachers ignore the mobbing and harassment of gay students and do not take any action, often turning the school into a safe haven for homophobia and humiliation. Whereas schools could be a place which can educate and influence the young Russian generation in a positive way, they are doing the exact opposite at the moment.
Something which maybe sounds a bit ridiculous, but does indeed influence young people a lot are the traditional gender roles of male and female. In Russia, these roles are still quite present and many young people do not want to challenge them. Therefore, a man should be masculine, in the very cliché idea of manliness: Being the invincible and strong man who is able to defend his woman and can manage any problem on his own. Being feminine also comes with clichés: The beautiful and coquettish girl who still needs a man to defend her.
Thus, being gay would in theory question those roles, an assumption both about the “watertight” limits of gender and about the LGBT community as a whole. For them, a gay man is more feminine and unable to manage all the tasks a “real” man would. A gay woman is manly, too harsh to be feminine and who does not need a protective man by her side. Of course, those stereotypes over-exaggerate the situation in some ways, yet this exact mindset is still very present, lacking the education to overturn these prejudices. Most Russians do not have any relations with somebody who is openly gay, which in turn proves why these stereotypes reproduce, as they have no example of a person who does not adhere to those stereotypes, like most LGBT people do, to prove them wrong.
Media acts a permeable membrane that strengthens all of the aforementioned beliefs. First of all, homosexuality is not broadcasted on television for children or teenagers; series or movies with “homosexual content” are often shown late at night or the scenes are censored. Still, any gay person on the Russian television would easily fulfill every prejudice criterium one could think of, which is obviously always negative. However, the core of the problem with media is that the situation of LGBT people is always shown from a political perspective, meaning that they are downplaying the problems. So, one would see speeches from politicians who are saying that the gay community has no problem at all in Russia or Putin claiming that he has nothing against gay people. Yet at the same, victims or even individuals who fled because of the homophobia they faced, do not get any space to share their message on public media.
Which brings us to the root of the problem. Homosexuality in Russia is – and has long been – heavily politicised, notably by spreading the idea that homosexuality is a Western problem or even a Western invention. As Putin said during an interview: “Both Russia and Europe have a demographic problem. Sure, you can resolve this issue through immigration, and that is indeed one way of coping. Me, however, in Russia, I would like to see the demographic situation improve through increased births of our own ethnicities.” Which is exactly why the Gay Propaganda Law was passed; to protect the “traditional family” and protect Russian values.
The situation seems rather hopeless and will stay hopeless under these circumstances. With the Church influencing political decisions, a gag and total disdain in education, a dubious legal status, and substantial media bias, homosexuality is of course not seen as something normal. People have gotten used to prejudice and cannot even get information if they want to speak up. Older generations are difficult to influence, having grown up in a homophobic Russia, it will be hard for them change their opinion.
As much as the legal status should be changed, minds are also a priority. Yeltsin might have legalized homosexuality in 1993 but fell short on changing the mindset. Laws only bring about change when they reflect the people. Fortunately, if you are young and speak English, you have a way out through international media and in general, many younger people have a more “Western” mindset, questioning the extents at which homophobia has grown to. Hopefully, this trend will grow.