Following its restrictive 2013 anti-LGBT propaganda law, which liberally punished what Russia calls “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors,” the Russian government signed into law on December 5, 2022, an anti-LGBT bill expanding criminal liability for the dissemination of “LGBT propaganda” amongst adults. While the 2013 law restricted displays of homosexual lifestyles and discussions of homosexuality in the presence of minors, this new law could enable law enforcement to deem virtually any public presentation of homosexuality as illicit homosexual propaganda. Fines for those found guilty of violating this law range from 100,000 to 2 million rubles ($1,660-$33,000) and non-residents can be detained in Russia for fifteen days before facing expulsion from the country.
History of Hostility
The Russian government has historically been hostile to members of the LGBT community. Homosexuality was a crime in the USSR and was labeled as a mental illness until 1999. Despite the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, same-sex marriage was outright banned in a 2020 amendment to its constitution, which states that marriage is “”a union between a man and a woman.” Further, while transgender Russians can change their legal gender markers on identification documents as of 1997, this process often requires trans individuals to seek permission from doctors to do so, which is complicated by a severe lack of doctors willing to go against the Russian government in support of the LGBT community. This fear is not unfounded, evidenced when the prominent doctor Dr. Dmitri Isaev was harassed by anti-LGBT activists for providing gender-affirmative care to transgender patients.
Other individuals have faced harassment and legal repercussions for their support of the LGBT community and their own identities. Music teacher Maria Shestopalova was pressured by school officials to resign after an online critic of the LGBT community exposed her as a lesbian in a 31-page dossier on his public website. Likewise, artist Yulia Tsvetkova was detained for alleged “production and dissemination of pornographic materials,” tied to her artwork depicting same-sex couples with children as well as drawings of women’s bodies posted on the Russian social media site VKontakte. While her acquittal was affirmed in November 2022, Tsvetkova faced, ““house arrest, travel restrictions, fines, and reprisals” for three years while awaiting this verdict.
In addition to the targeted harassment of individuals, the 2013 law was weaponized against LGBT activist groups. This included shutting down websites providing services to LGBT teens, prohibiting LGBT public events, and restricting the advice mental health professionals could provide to young LGBT clients. While the Russian Constitution provides for freedom of association, the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law was weaponized to uphold a court ruling prohibiting gay pride parades in Moscow for “100 years.” Even the global brand TikTok was fined $51,000 for allowing content that violated the anti-gay propaganda law by promoting “non-traditional values, LGBT, feminism, and a distorted representation of sexual values.” While monetarily this fine was no more than a slap on the wrist, it indicates a greater trend of censorship in Russia of both national and international communications on social media.
As for the impact the 2013 ban has had on LGBT youth, a report from Human Rights Watch interviewing 56 LGBT-identifying youth and 11 mental health providers and social workers in Russia found that the law restricted their access to support in school, online, and in their communities, leading to feelings of isolation, bullying from their peers, and misinformation from counselors unable to speak candidly about sexuality without fear of coming under the propaganda law. The organization urges Russia to repeal the gay propaganda law and to enforce judgments of the European Court of Human Rights ensuring freedom of expression. This call however is unlikely to be heard given Russia’s hard swing towards conservative values urged by the war with Ukraine, which has become symbolic as a war against Western values.
Political Motives Behind the 2022 Law
With the passage of the 2022 gay propaganda law, President Vladimir Putin and his government have expanded liability to LGBT organizations and individuals living their daily lives. The purposely vague law outlaws “any public expression of LGBT behaviour or lifestyle in Russia,”” which law enforcement can interpret broadly. This sparked fears among LGBT community members of being punished for displaying affection in public, advertising LGBT social spaces such as gay bars, and publishing works depicting LGBT lifestyles.
Critics of Putin’s regime highlight the timing of this law’s passage aligned with his flailing war against Ukraine purposely serves to incite a culture war for traditional conservative family values. While Russia fails to make significant gains in its war to annex Ukraine, , its citizens are becoming more dissatisfied with the war and its causes. In an effort to unite the country under a common cause, Putin once again encroaches on the rights of LGBT individuals by waging a war against non-traditional lifestyles and families.
While support for the war in Ukraine has begun to waiver, by appealing to traditional family values, Putin seeks to maintain the support of his base. In a global study of LGBT values in 27 countries, Russia was one of two countries with a majority of its population disapproving of gay marriage, with 64% wanting either recognition other than marriage or no legal recognition of same-sex couples. Further, 67% of Russians surveyed reported that they believed same-sex couples should not have the same rights to adopt children as heterosexual couples. While a growing number of Russians believe the war is not going according to plan (42%) and more than ever (55%) favor peace talks as the war has drawn on, Putin’s appeals to traditional family values give Russians a common enemy to rally against. Russia’s National Security Advisor Nikolai Patrushev denounced the influence of Western values in an interview with Argumenty i Fakty (AiF), stating that, “Father and mother are being renamed parent number one and two […] They want to give children the right to determine their own sex, and in some places they’ve gotten to the point of legalizing marriage with animals.” Putin himself echoed this sentiment at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, expressing his concern for Western influences impacting the traditional family structure. The alarmingly common equation of LGBT rights with satanism, bestiality, and pedophilia in political rhetoric has led to widespread hatred for the Russian LGBT community, allowing Putin to further push his conservative agenda.
The 2022 law allows Russia to crack down on adults engaging in consensual same-sex relationships and presenting non-binary gender expressions. This does not mean that LGBT people will not exist in Russia, but that they will be forced to hide in fear of losing their jobs and children, facing public harassment, being slapped with hefty fines, or even being imprisoned if the government decides to pursue criminal charges against them. By positioning the war against Ukraine as a war against Western values, Putin appeals to his conservative base, seeking reassurance that the dragged-out conflict, which has claimed 200,000 casualties on all sides, is for a cause great enough to justify its economic and human toll.
The suppression of public displays of LGBT lifestyles is a blatant infringement on human rights in Russia, allowing the government to punish people for expressing their identities online and in public is a glaring overreach into the private lives of Russia’s citizens. While the 2013 gay-propaganda law hid behind the guise of protecting minors from exposure to sexual themes, the 2022 law makes no attempt to masquerade as a law based on public safety. The law instead scapegoats LGBT individuals as enemies against the Russian state for daring to break from traditional familial values. By acting on the negative opinions of LGBT individuals held by most Russians, Putin’s government seeks to garner support for his messy expansion into Ukraine, arguing that Russia needs to expand its reign to stop the spread of the West’s amoral values.