Out in the World: Queer Russians on edge after high court bans 'LGBTQ movement'

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday December 13, 2023
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down on LGBTQs ahead of his reelection in March. Photo: Via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down on LGBTQs ahead of his reelection in March. Photo: Via AP

Queer Russians are hastily deleting associations with LGBTQ events and political statements from their social media accounts and some are attempting to leave the country, media outlets have reported.

Queer businesses and organizations are shuttering their doors and groups are moving operations outside of Russia.

These moves are a reaction to the Russian Supreme Court's November 30 ruling deeming the LGBTQ movement as "extremist" and banning all LGBTQ activity within Russia. Further, there were recent raids of LGBTQ events and venues in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The Russian Ministry of Justice on November 17 proposed the new law and claimed the LGBTQ movement was an "extremist" threat to Russia despite no organization legally existing. The Supreme Court denied LGBTQ organizations' attempts to file motions in the case and, on November 30, held a four-hour closed-door hearing with the judge and representatives of the ministry without defendants' representation, Gay City News and other outlets reported.

Reporters were only allowed at Russian Supreme Court Judge Oleg Nefedov's reading of the ruling, where he claimed to identify "manifestations of an extremist nature" in the LGBTQ movement, including "incitement of social and religious discord," reported Gay City News.

The case's details and punishments are unclear due to the court sealing the case. The ruling took effect immediately.

The court actions came shortly before the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, on December 7 unanimously approved the country's next federal election to be set for March 15-17, Meduza reported.

The following day the Russian Central Election Commission adopted the resolution reported Meduza, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, 71, announced his bid to run for his fifth term in office, reported the Associated Press. Putin has held office since 2000.

According to The Standard, due to constitutional reforms Putin orchestrated, he can seek two more six-year terms, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036. He also nearly sealed his victory by establishing tight control over Russia's political system, jailing or pushing critics out of the country, and banning independent media. He continues to hold high approval ratings by independent pollsters.

AP reported that about 80% of the populace approves of Putin's performance, according to the independent pollster Levada Center. The news outlet speculated Putin will only face "token opposition" on the ballot.

RT reported in August that Russian Field, an independent sociological research company, found that in 2023, 62% of respondents expressed support for limiting "gay rights," and 55% supported restricting "transgender rights." In contrast, previous polling by the company showed only 42% of Russians in 2021 opposed gay rights, and respondents polled even lower by 19% in 2013.

Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 after the fall of communism, but anti-LGBTQ sentiment has remained, especially among older Russians and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many Russians continue to associate LGBTQ rights with the economic collapse and breakdown of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, reported Euronews.

Two people have announced their bids against Putin, reported Al Jazeera. They are former state Duma legislator Boris Nadezhdin, and journalist and lawyer Yekaterina Duntsova.

Gay Russian Sergei Troshin, a municipal deputy in St. Petersburg, believes the recent court ruling is a vote-getter linked to the forthcoming election, and was not optimistic about the future of Russia's LGBTQ community.

"I think this will mean that anyone whom the state considers an LGBT activist could receive a long prison sentence for 'participating' in an extremist organization. For the organizer of such a group, the prison term will be even longer," he told the BBC ahead of the court's ruling.

"We're having to evacuate from our own country. It's terrible," Troshin said.

Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that people involved in an extremist organization, as defined by the government, could be punished with up to six years in prison. Founders of "banned" organizations face being sentenced to up to 10 years.

"This is the most difficult period for the LGBTQ community since the Soviet era," Aleksei Sergeev, an activist for LGBTQ and human rights, told France 24.

Fear and flight

Some people are concerned about their social media accounts.

"Our social media can be used against us," Sophia Agapov, a queer woman, told Euronews, stating that she was "hastily deleting" photos of past Pride events she attended, "just in case."

"People have been previously arrested for posting political opinions, it is likely to continue with 'extremist opinions' shared on Twitter," she feared. "My friends and I definitely feel very insecure and isolated."

Russian LGBTQ activist Maxim Goldman, who identifies as nonbinary, left the country due to the crackdown. The BBC reported it spoke with Goldman right before they left the country November 30.

"I feel totally rejected by my own country," they told the BBC, explaining Russia is supposed to be a democracy and the people should be taken care of, "but the opposite is happening.

"They're punishing us. They're wiping their feet on us. I'm being forced out," he said.

Gay clubs Kinky Rouge, Mono Bar, and Secret were raided by Russian police December 1-2 under the guise of an anti-drug operation.

In St. Petersburg, Central Station and several other gay bars and clubs suddenly closed last week, reported AP.

Lawyer Konstantin Boykov, who worked for the Russian gay legal advocacy organization DELO LGBT+, told Novaya that it dissolved itself after the court's ruling.

Boykov said some of the organization's lawyers and staff would resettle outside Russia. Others planned to continue their work independently or for other organizations inside the country.

Many of the activists and organizations targeted by Russian authorities were already registered as "foreign agents" in Russia — which currently includes up to 30 groups associated with the LGBTQ community, reported Novaya.

Russia has put the squeeze on its LGBTQ community for a decade, starting with the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda Law. In July, lawmakers banned gender-affirming surgery.

The Center for Independent Social Research found that violence against LGBTQ people in Russia nearly doubled within five years after the so-called gay propaganda law passed 10 years ago, reported Euronews.

Lawyers expressed to Novaya they fear that the nonexistence of the LGBTQ movement as an official entity will make it easy for Russian authorities to allege involvement due to the law's vague language.

"It was tough to be an LGBTQ person in Russia before, but now it's suicidal to be there," Yelena Goltsman, the co-founder of RUSA LGBTQ+, told GCN at Brighton Beach Pride earlier this year. "People are just running for their lives."

This is not the first time Russia has banned "a poorly defined group" as an alleged "extremist" group, reported Novaya. In 2020, the court declared AUE, a prison subculture group whose name translates to Prisoner and Criminal Unity, as "extremist" and "a danger to society."

Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Research Center, a Moscow-based nonprofit, believes AUE is apolitical and not a constitutional threat. He told Novaya that since the court's ruling three years ago there have been an "extraordinary" number of cases brought against the group's members.

More alarming, Verkhovsky said it is nearly impossible to find any details on the cases. Discretion for public announcements of the case's rulings is left to the court press services.

Novaya also pointed to supporters of Putin's rival, Alexey Navalny, as an example. Anyone displaying or caught with symbols supporting Navalny has been tied up in administrative court cases since 2021, according to human rights activists.

A panel of nine United Nations experts noted in a December 7 release the SOVA Centre's report that 255 people were charged without proper grounds for "extremism" or related crimes in 2022.

Activists and academic experts in Russia and Slavic countries are not surprised by the Putin administration's latest attack on Russia's LGBTQ community with Russia's war in Ukraine going unfavorably and the forthcoming presidential election.

"I was not surprised at this decision," Professor Richard Mole, director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, told Euronews. "Whenever things are going badly for the Russian government, they need a distraction."


United Nations experts condemned the court ruling and police raids of LGBTQ bars that documented participants' identities. LGBTQ and human rights organizations, such as Outright International, also criticized the court ruling.

The officials expressed their concerns about the country's "trend of reported state-sponsored human rights violations against" LGBTQ Russians directly to Russia in a letter December 4, according to the release.

"LGBTIQ people exist in every country, and a legal ban on the undefined 'international LGBT movement' will result in more violence, discrimination, and isolation of LGBTIQ people in Russia, who are already targeted for being who they are," stated Maria Sjödin, executive director at Outright International.

Yan Dvorkin, director of Center T, who fled Russia citing security concerns, called the court's decision a "new low point of insanity," reported Al Jazeera. Dvorkin said the organization will publish safety guidelines for the LGBTQ community.


Internationally, Russian authorities continue to deny the assault on LGBTQs.

Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Justice Minister Andrei Loginov, delivering a human rights report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, stated that "the rights of LGBT people in Russia are protected" legally, reported AP. He argued before the body that "restraining public demonstration of nontraditional sexual relationships or preferences is not a form of censure for them."

Russia's assault against the LGBTQ community isn't over.

Experts warned that Russia's lead against the global LGBTQ movement could spread.

"And I'm looking forward to the next step: banning the six-color rainbow flag," Vitaly Milonov, an anti-LGBTQ homophobic member of the Russian parliament, told the BBC. "I hope that no one can show this flag in Russia."

Activists and experts also expressed concerns about copycat laws. Following passage of Russia's so-called gay gag law Hungary, Nigeria, Poland, Uganda, and other countries attempted - and continue to try — to pass laws modeled after Russia's law.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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