Is Liberalism Obsolete? The Impact of the Russian Gay Propaganda Law

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The 1993 decriminalization of homosexual acts by former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, gave the LGBTQ community hope— but the liberal reform was short-lived. On June 29, 2013, Moscow’s parliament enacted the Federal Law No.135-FZ, referred to as the “Russian Gay Propaganda Law,” prohibiting the distribution of information regarding the existence of sexualities and genders that deviate from the norm. The current Russian president Vladimir Putin described the purpose of the law as “[protecting] children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values.”

The Russian Gay Propaganda Law was used on September 20th by the Ural State University of Economics to threaten a student with expulsion for owning a pink iPhone case and following a pro-LGBTQ Instagram page. The student received a letter from his university which read: "We tracked your social networks: You are gay,” citing the student’s association with the Instagram account and the color pink as evidence of his homosexuality. Roman Krasnov, the University Vice President for disciplinary work, contended that the student “defamed the name of the institute” and that the fact that he has a girlfriend “is not an excuse and does not prove that [he is] not gay.” By tracking their students’ social media activity, the state university followed the protocol outlined in the Russian Gay Propaganda Law. Krasnov argues the university’s duty to “look at the moral character of [their] students” warrants the intrusion of students’ online privacy. 

In this particular case, the law was extended to uphold the criminalization of communication between members of the LGBTQ community and demonstrations of “gaiety.” The student was not expelled for being gay but for engaging in behaviors deemed homosexual. The Gay Propaganda Law does not provide objective standards for determining someone’s sexuality, granting Russian authorities immense power and discretion to decide what can and cannot be considered gay behavior. In practice, the law has been used by homophobic individuals as an excuse to carry out a witch hunt against suspected non-heterosexuals. 

Despite the apparent discrimination against LGBTQ people in Russia, President Putin told the Financial Times that his country as a whole has “no problem with LGBTQ persons.” He stated that support for gay people “must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.” Putin justified the Gay Propaganda Law with his claim that liberalism is “obsolete” because the majority of Russians perceive traditional values as “more important.” 

Sir Elton John responded to President Putin’s statement with a post on Instagram, bringing international attention to the treatment of the LGBTQ community in Russia. Elton John pointed out the hypocrisy between Putin’s proclaimed acceptance towards non-heterosexual people and the government’s recent decision to heavily censor his movie, Rocketman. All the movie scenes alluding to Elton John’s happy ending with another man and child were edited out in Russian theaters. President Putin responded to the post claiming Elton John was mistaken and that the Russian government takes a “relaxed” and “unprejudiced” approach when interacting with the LGBTQ community. 

Putin’s rhetoric that liberal values in Russia are “obsolete” feeds into the misperception that the Gay Propaganda Law was written to uphold the traditional values held by the public, rather than reflect the state’s agenda to shape family structures. Although laws do not necessarily reflect public opinion, they do have the power to guide it. A survey conducted by the Levada Center revealed a correlation between the enactment of the Gay Propaganda Law and the rise of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. In 2013, less than 39% of Russians surveyed agreed that non-heterosexual people deserve the same rights as their heterosexual, cisgender peers. The survey showed that the percentage of participants who believe the LGBTQ community should be “isolated from society” has increased by 4 percent over the past 8 years, and the percentage of participants who advocate for “treatment of gay people” has also increased by 5 percent.  

 The law surpasses political concerns when the damaging psychological effects of sexual repression and gender bias on youth are also considered. Teachers, psychologists, and doctors can be severely punished for speaking positively about the LGBTQ community or encouraging people to explore their sexuality. An urban-based study of over 2,000 LGBTQ people of all ages revealed that 73% of the survey participants believe the Russian Gay Propaganda Law has incited increased violence and hatred. At some point in their lives, 56% of participants have been victims of psychological harassment, 16% have been assaulted, and 7% have been raped. These studies reveal how the law has succeeded in creating a divide between heterosexual and homosexual Russian citizens. Stereotypes associated with being gay have been reinforced, effectively rendering non-heterosexual desires taboo, which, in turn, serve directly to Putin’s agenda of suppressing the prevalence of liberalism. 

The prejudice exacerbated by the Russian Gay Propaganda Law has now led to violence. The criminalization of gay propaganda has created the illusion that gay people are a dangerous threat to society.  In 2017, a study found that hate crimes against the LGBTQ community have doubled since 2013, when the law was enacted.  Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia Director at the Human Rights Watch, states, “the ‘propaganda’ law doesn’t protect anyone...this law only jeopardizes the safety and rights of Russia’s LGBTQ community, and it should be immediately repealed.” 

The increased violence is perpetuated by both the police force and the common public. Earlier in the year, Yelena Grigoryeva, a leading activist for LGBTQ rights, was stabbed to death. The police declared her death a murder but the statement released by the Investigative Committee of Russia did not mention her identity or any other personal details. In August, one month after her brutal death, the authorities released a blurry video of a man confessing to have killed her in a drunken dispute. Grigoryeva’s friend Aleksandr Khmelev remains unconvinced by the evidence and alleges the murder was politically motivated. Before her death, Grigoryeva was receiving death threats including a picture of a knife, the weapon she was killed with. 

Grigoryeva’s death is not an isolated incident; LGBTQ activists have long accused Russian authorities of incompetence in dealing with these crimes, claiming institutionalized homophobia and prejudice have deterred police from investigating the murders of homosexual victims. The LGBTQ community is demanding that the government protect them from Pila, a website recently banned for offering rewards to people who physically attack LGBTQ members. Despite the ban, the supporters of the website promised “to play until the end” and continue the violence. The Russian police department has publicly refused to offer these victims substantial protection against unlawful violence, demonstrating their commitment towards homophobia and hatred, as opposed to their lawful duty to protect all citizens of Russia. 

Recently, Grigoryeva’s murder was traced back to the infamous Saw List, a “gay-hunting” website, similar to Pila, offering monetary rewards for the killing of gay people. The Saw List was created in 2016 by an anti-LGBTQ group after the release of the horror movie Saw. The group sought to incentivize and encourage violence against non-heterosexuals in Russia by publishing an online list with the names of Russian gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People using the list have advocated for a return of the “Gay Purge,” a tragic massacre, which took place in Chechnya in 2017. In the “Gay Purge,” more than 100 gay people were rounded-up, tortured, and then killed in government-sponsored “concentration camps.” Amin Dzhabrailov, a survivor of the purge, spoke out about his experience being held in custody by the authorities: “my body was blue, purple. My heart was broken. My life was broken. I lost family, friends, career. Everything.” Speculations of a “New Purge” have emerged as activists report that this year 40 people have been wrongfully detained and at least two people have been killed for engaging in homosexual behavior.

Under the guise of public violence, the Kremlin has given Russian authorities free reign to beat down the LGBTQ community. Yet, there is still hope; and despite what Putin may portray, liberalism is not obsolete. The death of Grigoryeva has sparked a liberal backlash against the Russian Gay Propaganda Law by both citizens and the international community. On April 17, 2019, thousands of activists and civilians gathered in St. Petersburg to protest political violence against the LGBTQ community.

Although gay people are far from attaining equal rights Russia has made great strides since 1993 when the practice of homosexuality was completely illegal. Hate crimes and prejudice have increased as a consequence of the Russian Gay Propaganda Law, but a liberal force is fighting back. Before a government can change, public opinion must evolve. If the gay rights movement in Russia gains traction, the Russian government will be pressured by the public to reform laws criminalizing the freedom of sexuality. The first step towards establishing an equal society in Russia is to eradicate the Russian Gay Propaganda Law. Considering the global trend towards acceptance of the LGBTQ community, international pressure from the United Nations can also hold Putin’s goverment accountable for their crimes against gay people.

 Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have attempted and failed to suppress liberalism and the progression towards accepting the LGBTQ community. In Russia, the growing gap between public values and the government’s political agenda have become most apparent. Global attitudes are evolving, and despite conservative political resistance, change is inevitable.

Stella Cavedon