Out in the World: Russia's beleaguered LGBTQ community faces harsher crackdown

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday December 9, 2022
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Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new anti-LGBTQ propaganda law that extends a similar 2013 law to adults. Photo Credit: Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new anti-LGBTQ propaganda law that extends a similar 2013 law to adults. Photo Credit: Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia swung a one-two punch at its LGBTQ community by expanding two laws — Foreign Agents and Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 5 signed into law the amended anti-homosexuality propaganda bill that extends the 2013 Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda law to cover adults. An update to the foreign agent law went into effect December 1.

Putin in recent days also agreed to a prisoner swap that saw lesbian American WNBA star Brittney Griner released from a penal colony and returned to the U.S. in exchange for Victor Bout, a convicted arms dealer who had been in prison in this country, as the Washington Blade reported. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been serving a nine-year prison sentence after a Russian court convicted her on the importation of illegal drugs after Russian customs officials found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February. She is now back in the U.S.

But Putin continues to crack down on LGBTQ rights in Russia. The revised anti-homosexuality propaganda law covers all media, including advertising, online resources, books, movies, and theater productions, that can be deemed to contain LGBTQ propaganda. It also covers promoting gender identity issues and gender-affirming surgery for minors.

Individuals caught attempting to or promoting LGBTQ life face fines of 400,000 rubles ($6,000). Entities can be fined up to 5 million rubles ($82,100). Foreigners can be arrested for up to 15 days and deported.

The law does not make violations a criminal offense, reported ABC News. Russian law stipulates the criminal code can only be amended by an independent bill. Some lawmakers expressed favor of proposing legislation, according to the network.

Lawmakers in Russia's Parliament unanimously voted to expand the Anti-Homosexuality Propaganda law in the lower-house November 24 and upper house November 30.

Russia's internet will be monitored by the country's powerful online regulator Roskomnadzor, the New York Times reported, citing Russian state-run news agency Tass.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, a gay man, started his December 6 press briefing by calling the law "another serious blow to freedom of expression in Russia."

Price stated it was a "continuation of the Kremlin's broader, long-running crackdown against marginalized persons, dissenting voices, civil society, and independent media that it has intensified, as it has failed to achieve its objectives in its unconscionable war against Ukraine."

"The law pushes LGBTQI+ persons further to the margins of Russian society, fueling and amplifying the prejudice, discrimination, violence, and stigma they face," he added, noting Russia's "scapegoating vulnerable communities and creating phantom enemies" to "distract from its own failures."

Price said, "We stand in solidarity with LGBTQI+ persons in Russia."

Human Rights Watch official Tanya Lokshina stated the old "gay propaganda" law was an example of political homophobia and the new law amplifies that.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the 2013 law is discriminatory, promotes homophobia, and violates the European Convention on Human Rights, reported CNN.

Foreign agent law

Passed in 2012, the foreign agent law has been amended multiple times during the past decade, restricting organizations and civilians. Individuals and organizations are required to register with the state if they receive support from foreign sources. The new iteration of the law further cracks down on free speech and human rights. It was approved in July but was delayed going into effect.

The laws are Putin's latest assault on the country's LGBTQ community, a pawn in his war against the West as he suffers continued defeats in his war against Ukraine, observers noted.

HRW was critical of the law.

"For more than a decade, Russian authorities have used 'foreign agents' laws to smear and punish independent voices," stated HRW Deputy Europe and Central Asia Director Rachel Denber, in a December 1 news release from the organization. "This new tool in the government's already crowded toolbox makes it even easier to threaten critics, impose harsh restrictions on their legitimate activities and even ban them. It makes thoughtful public discussion about Russia's past, present, and future simply impossible."

Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. The country removed homosexuality as a mental illness in 1999. Nonetheless, homophobia remains rife in the country. Russia ranks 46th out of 49 European countries for LGBTQ+ inclusion by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association-Europe.

Ksenia Mikhailova, of Coming Out, a St. Petersburg-based LGBTQ organization, told Democracy Now, "This is a signal that all the types of violence against LGBT people are allowed by the state."

She recalled the "wave of hate crimes against LGBT" people in 2013 when Putin signed the original bill into law.

"Now it will be a tsunami," she said.

In St. Petersburg, Russian LGBTQ activist Pyotr Voskresensky created an LGBTQ history exhibit in his city center apartment days before the laws went into effect.

"The museum is a political act," Voskresensky told the Moscow Times. "As this era is coming to an end, I felt I wanted to say one last word."

Voskresensky carefully collected statues, jewelry, vases, books, and other art objects that tell the story of Russia's LGBTQ subculture. He wanted to share it with the public before he couldn't, he told the paper.

Drag artists fear that they could be affected too.

A group of drag queens and spectators gathered in a Moscow club on the eve of the foreign agent bill going into effect felt similarly. They had met as Russian lawmakers in the upper house of parliament were poised to vote on the revised anti-homosexual propaganda law November 30. Many believed it might be their last legal show in Russia.

"I want to hope for the best, but we are getting ready for the worst," said drag queen Margot Mae Hunt, the evening's host. Hunt added there's already a solution in place for that scenario, reported the South China Morning Post. "We'll just go underground and become even more legendary!"

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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