sAs we welcome the year 2022, it is hard to believe that the LGBTQIA+ community in Russia still faces issues of discrimination and violence daily. In other parts of the world, such as the US and Australia, queer rights are slowly making positive headway. However, in Russia, the gay and trans communities struggle for self-expression, safety, and human rights. It is not uncommon for gay couples to live together secretly and hide their sexual identity from family and co-workers. If they don’t, they live in fear of being a target for violence and discrimination.
In 2013, Russia passed the ‘gay propaganda law.’ The government in Russia passed it to ensure that the LGBTQIA+ community cannot circulate information on gay issues. The idea is that this propaganda will foster or encourage gay behavior in young people. To ‘promote’ homosexuality to a minor under 18 in Russia is a fine-able offense and is against the law.
This ‘propaganda’ could be anything ranging from pamphlets for support groups, films, music, or LGBTQIA+ events. The attitudes toward the queer community in Russia at the time were already strenuous. However, since Russia passed this law, acts of violence against the queer community have increased.
LGBTQIA+ in Russia
‘LGBTIQA+’ is an evolving acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual. Many other terms (such as non-binary and pansexual) that people use to describe their experiences of their gender, sexuality, and physiological sex characteristics. However, there are still some identities and acronyms missing from this title and an even more thorough label would be LGBTQQIPAA+. When discussing Russia, specifically in this article, we will use LGBTQIA+. ‘Queer’ is an umbrella term that can mean any kind of diverse sexuality or gender.
Anyone in Russia who identifies as any label in this LGBTQIA+ community faces severe legal and social problems. They do not have the same privileges and freedoms that non-LGBTQIA+ people do. In 1993, Russia legalized gay relationships. However, this has not changed homophobic attitudes towards queer people.
Same-sex couples do not have access to the same benefits or government protection as opposite-sex households. Moreover, while there is a gay propaganda law, there are no laws prohibiting violence or aggression against queer people. This leaves LGBTQIA+ people in Russia very open to discrimination that they have no legal protection against.
Homosexuality was only declassified as a mental illness in 1993. While queer people are allowed to pursue careers and even serve in the military, there is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude. For example, people shouldn’t disclose their identities. As there are no laws prohibiting discrimination, secrecy is the only way queer people can protect themselves.
Gay Porpoganda and Descimination
June 2013, is when the federal law criminalized gay propaganda among minors that might support or encourage gay relationships. This kind of censorship is dangerous as it promotes homophobia. However, it has also stifled people’s sense of expression and creativity. For example, the LGBTQIA+ community cannot make queer films, novels, music, or events.
This has many devastating results for the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly for very young people. Russia passed the propaganda law as an amendment to an existing child protection law. The revision reflects the social and political attitudes toward the LGBTQIA+ community.
The law is why there have been multiple arrests of LGBTQIA+ citizens in Russia who publicly oppose the law. In addition, there have been instances of anti-gay protests, violence, and numerous hate crimes.
The discriminatory laws in Russia regarding LGBTQIA+ are internationally criticized. However, to this day, the European Court of Human Rights has sought to appeal the laws to no avail.
In larger cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow, it is safer to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. As it is easier for people to find and support each other, they can enjoy some small measure of freedom by planning events or gathering safely.
In 2010, Russia was fined by the European Court of Human Rights when the Moscow council denied over 100 requests for a gay pride event. While Moscow said they rejected the event for fear of the participant’s safety, this is still censorship.
Anti-gay purges in Chechnya
One of the most devastating consequences of the LGBTQIA+ communities‘ lack of rights in Russia is the great purge in Chechnya. The Chechnya Republic is a part of the Russian Federation. The purge has seen queer people tortured, abducted, imprisoned, and killed.
Many queer people in Chechnya were imprisoned against their will. Moreover, at least 2 out of 100 people died under these conditions. Human rights groups that have made trips to Chechnya described the conditions as a concentration camp.
In 2017, a Russian journalist reported that gay men were tortured and killed in an independent Russian newspaper. The journalist said his sources were people inside the Chechnya special services. The unnamed journalist has since gone into hiding.
Many human rights groups began to intervene by evacuating anyone in the concentration camps. In addition, they assisted with visa issues for any citizen seeking to leave Chechnya for fear of their safety.
Shockingly, the head of the Chechnya Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied that any of this was happening. Moreover, he denied the existence of gay men in Chechnya, stating their families would have killed them first before it could ever escalate to government intervention.
LGBTQIA+ Perceptions in Russia
A quick look at statistics of how Russia perceives LBGTQIA+ rights clearly puts the issue into focus. For example, 18% of Russians believe that society should eradicate queer people. Further, 51% say they would not want a queer neighbor, 16% say queer people should be isolated from society, and 5% that Russia should physically destroy them.
When the public were asked ‘should society accept homosexual people?’ a staggering 74% said no.
Homosexuality is now ‘legal,’ but gay marriage is not. Changing one’s name or pronouns is also legal, but only if one undergoes gender reassignment surgery. There are no laws that protect against discrimination in employment and housing. In addition, conversion therapy is legal, and while single homosexual people can adopt, couples cannot.
Hope and the Future for LGBTQIA+ Russia
Despite all of this, many members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Russia have high hopes that a cultural shift is happening. Queer people are starting to come together in Moscow and Saint Petersburg to organize music events and meetings where community members can easily find one another. However, this is mainly happening underground and is not yet where members can easily advertise and hand out flyers.
It is difficult for people to circulate media such as films or podcasts that chronicle gay issues or realities. However, some people can get around distributing media that involves gay issues or content. For example, by putting a disclaimer at the start of the program stating that it is not suitable for children under 18. This can make it difficult for the government to fine them. Even if they did, they would have support from the LGBTQIA+ community.
Magazines such as O-zine seek to create media and outlets that highlight the community’s activism. Many LGBTQIA+ members in Russia want the world to know about more than just their suffering. Instead, they want to raise awareness for the optimism and hope that the community has for the future.
O-zine was founded in 2018 by journalist Dmitry Kozachenko and writer and queer sex educator Sasha Kazatseva. Journalists Maria Lacinska, Anton Danilov, Anna Filippova, and Slava Rusova later joined this self-funded media outlet. The “O” in the title stands for “open”, and it’s a fearless celebration of queerness in an incredibly hostile environment.
The Importance of Activism
Many of these blogs, like o-zine and Washed Hands, are on Telegram. Telegram is an anonymous blogging and messaging system, and it helps keep bloggers safe.
There are LGBTQIA+ friendly clubs in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. However, these venues are not allowed to advertise this and rely on word-of-mouth promotion. Same-sex couples can go out to clubs but, once in the streets, will not be able to kiss or show affection, or they may face violence and abuse.
In 2015, a ”social experiment” took place in Moscow in which two men walked through the streets holding hands. The footage of the public reactions is shocking. Bystanders hurled abuse and threats at the men, and it eventually culminated in an altercation where a group of straight men was almost physically n\violent toward them. Such is the reality for many queer people, and it only becomes more problematic in smaller towns.
Transgender members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Russia face even harsher discrimination. Many trans people in Russia are labeled as ”mentally ill” and ”against nature.” In addition, a law almost came to pass that would criminalize sex reassignment surgery. However, due to public outcry from activists, this did not happen. As a result, it is legal for trans people to have sex reassignment surgery. However, doctors will tell trans people they are ill in most cases, ”diagnose” them with transsexualism and provide them with hormone’ hormone’ treatment.”
In April 2020, the Magazine Tatler will become the first Russian magazine to have a trans woman on its front cover. Natalia Maximova was the model. A Russian socialite, she said she felt the need to come out publicly to give people hope. Experts say around 15,000 transgender people live in Russia, or 0.1% of the country’s population. However, it is very difficult to say if this is accurate, as there are no official statistics.
The pandemic has posed severe issues for transgender people. Many trans and queer people will keep themselves safe by staying with family and friends and minimizing time out of their homes. It is pervasive for many parents of trans children to disown their children. In addition, trans children or people living at home can often have ‘treatments’ forced on them.
For LGBTQIA+ youth in Russia, censoring themselves in public can be stifling and depressing. It can take a toll on their mental and emotional health. Having to hide in their home environment means they are on edge and often in danger 24 hours a day. As the pandemic has meant that people must isolate, not travel and stay with their families, this is the reality for many trans and queer people.
LQBTQIA+ Finding Freedom of Expression in Russia
O-zine founder and activist Dima Kozachenko says, “I want to make our readers more open. I want them to be brave enough to come out, to talk about their sexuality more openly. Life for queer people in Russia is definitely challenging, but this horrible time can be positive; it can drive us to create new, inspiring things.”
It is hard to imagine how activists can be so hopeful and positive in the face of such darkness. However, this is the driving force behind activism where human rights are concerned. It springs from desire for all people to have an equal opportunity to have their basic human needs met. They may look different from person to person, but should not be feared.
Fellow founder Sasha Kazantseva echoes this sentiment,”On the one hand, we can see from opinion polls that homophobic attitudes are on the rise. But more and more young people believe LGBTQ discrimination shouldn’t be tolerated, so it’s a paradox: it’s getting worse and it’s getting better. It’s hard to predict the future. Some analysts say we’ll mimic China by becoming a very closed country; there’ll be more repression, and the government might introduce exit permits. I want to hope for the best, so right now I prefer to believe this absurd law will disappear sooner or later and that we will head for civilization.”
Hopefully, this kind of activism and raising of awareness will become so loud that it will affect policies and laws. While the LGBTQIA+ community in Russia do not have rights, they can fight for expression. If there is a shift in cultural attitudes and options, then this will mean they will have more public support when it comes to the amendment of a law.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
Sexuality and gender identity are varied and complex. However, if anthropology has taught us anything, all cultures have a universal need to express this. While concepts of what are male, female, trans, non-binary, and more can be viewed and manifest in extremely different ways across cultures, they are always fundamentally human.
All human beings have a desire to express their sexuality and identity. Not being able to do so is a violation of human rights and should be viewed as such. When activists in Russia fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, they are fighting for human rights and sacred human expression. Therefore, it should be important to all of us.