The Russian government has expanded a law prohibiting dissemination of information that can be deemed “gay propaganda,” meaning any information about homosexuality or LGBTQ individuals that is presented in a neutral or positive light.
First adopted by the government in 2013, the law was originally crafted to ban the spreading of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, which was largely understood to mean any mention of homosexuality, sex education curricula that teaches about HIV/AIDS or encourages condom use, mentions or depictions of famous LGBTQ people, or content that depicts or is seen as encouraging any behavior that falls outside of traditional sex-based stereotypes — even if such content is not sexual in nature.
Since 2013, a wide swath of actions, displays, or even inanimate objects have been deemed “violations” of the law, including a teenager’s decision to post pictures of shirtless men who were deemed to “look” homosexual to social media, scenes from a movie about Elton John, the mere existence of an LGBTQ advocacy group, Netflix movie and TV show offerings, a group of World Cup attendees wearing rainbow-colored shirts that appeared to form a “rainbow flag,” and even a bank note that depicted a partially-nude statue of the greek god Apollo.
In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights declared the law to be discriminatory, and ordered the country to compensate three LGBTQ activists who sued over the law. In 2019, the court found that the law violated LGBTQ groups’ rights by infringing on their right to freedom of association.
On July 4, the head of the State Duma’s information committee, Alexander Khinshtein, posted on his Telegram social media channel that the goal of this change was to “generally extend the ban on such propaganda regardless of the age of the audience (offline, in the media, on the internet, social networks and online cinemas).”
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Going forward, the law’s restrictions on dissemination of information deemed as pro-LGBTQ — or even information that does not outright condemn homosexuality or gender-nonconformity — will apply to situations involving adults as well as children.
Activists say the restrictions will outlaw any depictions of homosexuality or LGBTQ people in media, on the Internet, on social media networks, and in the public square. The law could even threaten public health, making it illegal for health providers or doctors to acknowledge a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity, by calling for additional tests or recommending certain treatments for specific conditions.
While the punishment for violating this law is light, consisting of only a fine, the expansion of the law marks a significant reversal for the country since 1993, when Russia legalized homosexuality following years of Communist rule. Even as late as 1999, homosexuality was still labeled as a mental illness in the country.
Russia, a socially conservative nation, has previously struggled with anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Volence against LGBTQ people is not uncommon. Even public polls reveal hostile attitudes towards LGBTQ people, showing that nearly 1 in 5 Russians say gays and lesbians should be “eliminated” from society, with nearly 1 in 3 saying they should be isolated from the larger society.
According to Al Jazeera, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian authorities see the law as preventing Western counties like the United States, Great Britain, and other constitutional democracies, from imposing the spread of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” in Russia.
The concern from Russian officials that Western countries are trying to impose their own cultural values on Russia has been exacerbated by the United States’ decision to send billions of dollars in direct military aid to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s ongoing invasion. The context of the war — in which Russian-sympathetic, pro-authoritarian residents, primarily from Eastern Ukraine, are pitted against pro-Western, more liberal Ukrainians wishing to retain their independence and unique cultural traditions — only increases Russian leaders’ paranoia.
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But Al Jazeera reports that the extension of the “gay propaganda law” also represents Putin’s latest to attempt to remain closely allied with leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church, who represent an important cultural force in the country and have denounced the existence of LGBTQ identities. While the two sides have always been close — as is common with right-wing or fascist regimes, which often align themselves with social conservatives to exercise power — both Putin and the Orthodox Church have acknowledged in the past that they have disagreements on certain issues.
Considering the current instability created by the country’s decision to invade Ukraine, the expansion of the “gay propaganda” law allows Putin and other leaders to play to their base by currying favor with the church, thereby avoiding any internal conflicts that could lead to further instability.
The unfortunate consequence of these political maneuverings is that LGBTQ Russians get caught in the crossfire, having their rights restricted and violence against them tacitly approved by the government. Russian political leaders have previously embraced tactics to endear themselves to social conservatives, banning same-sex marriage in the country, branding LGBTQ organizations as “extremists” in order to ban them, threatening to arrest gay men fathering children, and even threatening to use the “gay propaganda” law to remove children being raised by same-sex couples from their homes.