Russia looks to criminalize being gay, bisexual or lesbianThis Week, Around the World, Feature Story Tuesday, December 27th, 2011
CURRENT WORLD AFFAIRS QUESTION: What do Russia, Uganda and Nigeria have in common? Other than the fact that all three are oil-producing countries (albeit Uganda as a fledgling oil producer), they are all involved in creating legislation banning homosexuality in one way or another.
While Sharia law courts in northern Nigeria have already sentenced people to death for homosexuality, Uganda has passed laws that would make homosexuality punishable by death. Meanwhile, Russia, though not quite so extreme, is a country where moves are afoot to ban any reference to homosexuality as unacceptable “propaganda.” The move comes from the highest level of the federal government – the Russian deputy prime minister, no less.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak called for banning any “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relationships at the federal level, and at a press conference Dec. 2 in St. Petersburg said that the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations “is a disgusting thing,” promising consideration of “this topic at the federal level.”
The bill about administrative responsibility for “propaganda” of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors passed in the first hearing in St. Petersburg City Parliament Nov. 16 where the St. Petersburg governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, supported Kozak, saying that if the bill passes, “it will serve the public morals.”
However, Polina Savchenko, general manager of the Russian LGBT organization Coming Out, thinks passage of the bill is quite likely. “Many politicians are willing to use homophobic attitudes spread in the society to attract the electorate, including during the coming presidential elections,” said Savchenko. “Some of the regional and federal officials have already made statements claiming that this law is necessary in Russia.”
The implications of the bill for gays, bisexuals and lesbians in Russia is considerable says Igor Kochetkov, chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network. “First of all millions of people feel humiliated by the very discussion of this law. In case it is adopted, any LGBT activist will be subject to administrative charges for dissemination of information about homosexuality, and the very functioning of the LGBT Network will be at risk. The possibilities of living an openly gay life will also be further limited.”
The bill will also have implications for ordinary Russian citizens. Says Kochetkov, “They will not have access to information that they need to be able to accept LGBT people. The grounds for conflicts and phobias in society will therefore be still in place.”
Adds Savchenko, “Another important implication is that homophobic bullying at schools will be left unaddressed, and many more teenagers will be likely to commit suicide.”
Charles Radcliffe, chief, global issues section, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights told San Diego LGBT Weekly, “Any laws that restrict people’s right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly need to be looked at very closely. International human rights law doesn’t permit restriction of these rights on discriminatory grounds – and that includes on grounds of sexual orientation. Punishing people for discussing homosexuality while protecting those who wish to discuss heterosexuality is inherently discriminatory. In addition to helping to legitimize homophobia, restrictions of this kind pose a real risk to public health, depriving people of access to information that can help to keep them safe. They also raise serious concerns for the ability of human rights defenders to do their work.”
The very idea of anti-homosexuality laws in Russia is seen as a significant step backward to activists who have been watching LGBT developments in the home country of the former Soviet Union. Some partially blame American fundamentalist Christians, and see the sentiment behind the move to criminalize homosexuality as a threat to the viability of Russian democracy.
“Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia 20 years ago,” said Julie Dorf, senior advisor for the Council for Global Equality. “This re-criminalization of LGBT expression is beyond regressive – it is a sign of a failing democracy. The actual language of these proposed bills is very similar to others we’ve seen in Eastern Europe and are highly influenced by the Church. American anti-gay extremists like Paul Cameron and Scott Lively – who are discredited here in the U.S. – are finding fertile ground in other parts of the world to spread their lies and seed hatred. It is imperative that we support our colleagues around the world fighting these extreme criminal measures.”
Adding to the threat to Russian LGBTs’ wellbeing, claim critics, is the corruption of political power in Russia, which they say goes hand-in-hand with social scapegoats and the oppression of minorities.
Says Kochetkov, “Those deputies who seek being re-elected and the officials who want to maintain the current political power use their influence on the media to attract support of the homophobic part of the society.”
Adds Savchenko, “This law will also heighten the risks of corruption. The wording is so vague, that it will allow full arbitrariness in application. There is even no definition of what will be considered to be ‘propaganda,’ letting alone that the word itself doesn’t make any sense in this context at all.”
Other regions of Russia are also considering bans on the “propaganda of homosexuality.” Indeed, Kostroma, a region located 300 kilometers north east of Moscow, may become the third Russian region to outlaw so called propaganda of homosexuality to minors, after similar regional laws were implemented in 2006 in Ryazan and earlier in 2011 in Arkhangelsk. These are in addition to the recent activity in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The history of homosexual persecution in Russia is long, and historically has been tied to repression of political opponents by the government.
Says Kochetkov, “In Tsarist Russia, homosexuality was punished by forced labor. This article was introduced into the criminal code in 1839, but mostly was out of usage. After the revolution of 1917 criminal persecution was abolished, but not for long. A respective article was introduced into the Soviet criminal code in 1926 and existed till 1993 in the Russian Federation.”
Political oppression was often the real cause behind the persecution of gays and lesbians, according to Kochetkov.
Adds Savchenko, “Some 250,000 people were charged under this article during this period. Most of the time it was applied selectively and used as one of the instruments of political repressions.”
If political oppression was not enough to drive gays and lesbians (and bisexuals, for that matter) deep into the closet, there was also the specter of medical mistreatment.
“Along with criminalization, gay people also faced forced psychiatric treatment,” said Savchenko. “The overall number of gay and lesbian victims of the Soviet regime is unknown. After the article was abolished, gay people still encountered persecution, mostly from the radical nationalistic groups, and wide-spread discrimination without any protection from the state.”
Whether used to pander to a political demographic, or as a tool to silence political opponents, legislated persecution of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in Russia is likely to continue by the passing and proposing of federal and regional anti-homosexuality laws.
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