As the Ukraine war rages, Russia doubles down on anti-LGBT laws
The parliament has approved bills aimed at further constricting the country’s marginalised LGBT community.
Bledniy, a 37-year-old Russian blogger, knew he was gay at 12 years old.
“I was born in a small town, in the Altai territory,” he told Al Jazeera, of his home in Western Siberia.
“As a child, when I realised that I was gay, I also realised that I was the loneliest person on planet Earth, because the only gay person I knew was me.”
Now living in Moscow, Bledniy, or Pale in English, which is the name he blogs under, is more comfortable with his identity and feels lucky to have so far escaped any homophobic assaults.
But the climate for the LGBTQ community in Russia is growing ever more hostile.
On October 27, the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, threw its support behind bills prohibiting the “propaganda of non-traditional relations”.
Two bills were put forward by lawmakers Alexander Khinshtein and Nina Ostanina.
The first bill, proposed by Ostanina, bans “information that denies family values” and “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”.
This could lead to a new crackdown on media channels that authorities decide go against vaguely-defined “traditional values” – two words President Vladimir Putin is often heard saying.
The second bill, proposed by Khinshtein, expands the scope of existing laws.
While earlier manifestations barred “gay propaganda” that allegedly targets children, these new measures would forbid such “promotion” regardless of the audience’s age.
In practice, anyone could be fined or arrested for publicly saying anything that could be construed as positive about LGBT communities.
LGBT events would be banned – not only Pride marches, which have not been held in Russia for years, but also film screenings and exhibits.
Soon after the bills were approved in the first reading, Russia’s first transgender politician, Yulia Alyoshina, quit.
“I have never been involved in such propaganda, but I have no idea how to continue to conduct public political activity, being an open transgender woman,” she wrote on her Telegram feed.
That the new laws are being proposed now, as Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues, may not be a coincidence.
Khinshtein singled out Peppa Pig, the popular British cartoon show, as “a tool of hybrid war” being waged against Russia by normalising same-sex relationships – citing lesbian polar bear characters.
In a speech announcing the annexation of four regions of Ukraine in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the “dictatorship of the Western elites” of “Satanism”.
“Do we really want, here, in our country, in Russia, instead of ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, to have ‘parent number one’, ‘parent number two’, ‘number three’? Have they gone completely insane?” he asked.
And days ago, in yet another combative, anti-West speech, the Russian president again hailed “traditional values”.
Bledniy says the proposed measures are an attempt to distract Russian attention away from the ongoing war in Ukraine, in which Moscow’s forces have suffered heavy losses.
“Perhaps this law is now being actively pushed so that we discuss this ‘white noise’, and not the moral and material losses we, our country, are suffering at this moment,” he said.
By contrast, Ukraine, which is keen on becoming a member of the European Union, has hosted Pride parades for years, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently floated the idea of legalising same-sex marriage, although conservative attitudes are common throughout the war-torn nation.
Russia’s original law banning “gay propaganda” targeting children was passed in 2013, marking the Kremlin’s swing towards what it calls “traditional values.”
The level of abuse against the LGBT community has risen substantially since then.
In 2017, according to rights groups, a “purge” took place in the southern republic of Chechnya, in which hundreds of gay men were rounded up and tortured at secret facilities. A few were never seen again.
Across the rest of the country, queer Russians endure regular discrimination and some have lost their jobs after being outed.
Others have been assaulted, blackmailed, robbed or humiliated by gangs.
Meanwhile, activists say the law has also been used to target NGOs and advocacy groups such as Children-404, which offers support to gay teenagers.
“These laws, both existing and proposed, will certainly affect both LGBT+ persons and Russian society as a whole,” said Noel Shaida, head of communications at the Sphere Foundation, a Russian organisation supporting the LGBT community.
“Unfortunately, there is a possibility that the number of mental problems among queer people, and especially teenagers, may increase significantly due to the fact that they will have to hide more and more strenuously. And the feeling that you are an outcast can lead to worsening of a mental state, sometimes to a most dangerous degree.”
Others are worried about the effects on free speech.
Under the 2013 law, the live-action Disney film Beauty and the Beast was given a 16+ age restriction because of a gay character, but was not banned outright. In the United Kingdom and United States, the film was rated PG.
Publishers have voiced concerns about the new bills and their potential to impact artistic expression.
Several works of classic Russian literature by celebrated authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which have themes that could upset the authorities, could theoretically fall afoul of the proposed rules.
“It’s a war on popular culture. They want to extinguish the market, and since distribution is banned as well, bookshops will be too scared to stock titles since they’re afraid of fines or being shut down. How can they tell if a book is gay or not? It’s impossible to read everything cover to cover,” said a book publisher, who asked not to be identified.
“This will kill off a large part of the industry because everything will come under suspicion and significantly narrow the window for marketing. There’s no room for discussions or anything.
“Nevertheless, I think a lot of publishers think this is nonsense and will try not to self-censor themselves too much, and a lot of niche academic texts on matters of gender and sexuality will slip through.”
Although many queer Russians, such as the classical composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, have made valuable contributions to Russia’s rich cultural heritage, Dilya Gafurova of the Sphere Foundation says they are not viewed as equal citizens.
“After the adoption of the 2013 ban on ‘LGBT propaganda among minors’, Russian society saw a spike in negative attitudes toward the LGBT+ people, as some polls demonstrated,” Gafurova told Al Jazeera.
“However, we’d like to point out that we saw an improvement in public attitudes through the years to follow – in fact, at the moment there’s somewhat of a gap that exists between how the government and the way the Russian people treat the queer community.
“The trend right now with the bills is quite the same, though: the government instrumentalises its own citizens to try to create an enemy from within to rally people around, as all repressive regimes do.
“That is, in global terms, LGBT+ people in Russia are used as a common enemy … and LGBT+ relationships are always put in opposition to the so-called traditional values.”
However, she added that the new bills will further corner LGBT Russians.
Their few safe spaces will be even more limited, they will not be able to see themselves represented in the media, and some will likely face more prejudice and intimidation.
Gafurova believes many will suppress their identities completely, while others will emigrate.
But Bledniy believes that as long as the LGBT community survives, there is hope.
“The general experience around the world suggests that rights appear when they are demanded,” he said. “Whether it’s students, gays, African-Americans or wheelchair users, it’s no different.”