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A Backward Step: the homophobia of Putin’s Russia 

As the world marks one year since Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an article I penned for Embrace magazine’s Health issue in November 2022

At a time of increased imperial intentions, a law restricting the dissemination of LGBTQ+ affirming information — or, in their words, “propaganda” — is set to be expanded across Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

With its concerted attempts to drag its citizens and the wider world kicking and screaming back to the 19th century, Russia has announced its government’s expansion of an anti-LGBTQ+ “propaganda” law widely condemned as a hateful and classic example of political homophobia that targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for short-term political gain.

Formally, the 2013 law “aimed at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values,” it bans the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors – a reference universally understood to mean a ban on providing children and adults with access to information about the lives of LGBT people, i.e. that we even exist.

Respected global watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the law. The non-governmental organisations have repeatedly called on Russian authorities to abolish the hateful code, arguing it is having a deeply damaging effect on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth by intensifying the hostility minorities in Russia have long suffered, which has also resulted in stifling and curtailing access to important LGBT-inclusive education and support services.

According to Kyle Knight, a researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the “blatantly discriminatory” act has contributed to an intensification of harassment and violence against LGBT people in Russia. “The law has been used to shut down online information and mental health referral services for children and has discouraged support groups and mental health professionals from working with children,” Knight explained.

It has had the “complete opposite effect of what the proponents of the law suggested it would have. The evidence we have in our report shows the law actually ruined some children’s lives,” Knight added. HRW interviewed dozens of LGBT youth and mental health professionals across Russia, to examine the everyday experiences of the children in schools, home, and in public.

Diana F., a lesbian from the Khabarovsk region, told HRW that she felt as if the law “literally makes homophobes have free rein in our country.” According to HRW, one high-level church official even said that same-sex relations should be “completely eliminated” from Russian society, preferably through “moral persuasion” but, if necessary, through a public referendum on re-criminalizing homosexuality.

The approved expansion of the penal code is set to double fines for anyone “promoting” homosexuality. Under proposed legislation, the penalty would be increased to 2 million roubles ($33,000) for entities, with the fine increasing to up to 5 million roubles if the offence took place online or in the media. 

The amendment will also prohibit any positive LGBTQ+ representation across all Russian media, effectively making it a crime to mention that gay people exist in a country where you can be slung in jail for calling the brutal invasion of neighbouring Ukraine by the “motherland” a war.

A man attacks a gay rights activist during a gay pride parade in St. Petersburg (Reuters)

Mikhail Gorbachev, the recently deceased final leader of the Soviet Union who did much to bring about an end to the Cold War, must be spinning in his grave at the blatant attempts by Vlad The Invader to regress Russia back to a land-grabbing totalitarian regime that wants to be as feared as it is admired. 

The contrasts between the two men are striking. Domestically, Gorbachev’s reformist policy of glasnost (“openness”) allowed for hitherto levels of freedom of speech and an enhanced press while his perestroika (“restructuring”) sought to decentralise economic decision-making across the Soviet republics to improve its efficiency, effectively undermining the one-party state that had brought him and predecessors such as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin unparalleled power over the individual. Weighted heavily in favor of the former throughout Russian history, that shifted ten-fold under Gorbachev.

It may have been socialist in name, but it was social democracy in action, and led to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

“Gorbachev rejected enormous power, dismantled a totalitarian government, and gave our countries freedom,” wrote Fyodor Velembovsky, a former opposition politician and activist with the now-banned Memorial human-rights group — which was created under Gorby’s liberalisation and managed to preserve hundreds of first-hand accounts of Stalin’s USSR-era crimes before being unceremoniously banned by Putin, on Twitter. 

“Gorbachev placed the interests of people above the interests of the state,” Kirill Martynov, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta Europe — which was created by Gorbachev using money from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize — told the Radio Free Europe network. “The significance of Gorbachev has yet to be appreciated.” 

Aleksei Tabalov, a former staffer for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny from the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, wrote on Facebook that Gorbachev wanted to save the Soviet Union, but failed: “He failed because the Soviet Union was built from the beginning upon fear,” he wrote. “But under Gorbachev, fear left the Soviet Union. And that, most likely, was his greatest achievement.”

I visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1996 as Boris Yeltsin, Gorby’s successor and the sole truly democratically elected Russian president, was campaigning for a second term in office. And while there were obvious problems in the transition to a free market economy — including a poverty level even Americans would gasp at, and even a lack of clean running water in some areas —there, at the very least, was a degree of hope as the country emerged from the shadows of Communism.

I’ve pointedly refused to go back under the tyrannical poison-heavy Putin regime, and until despots are removed, wars are ended and gays are treated as equals, frankly my dear, that’s never going to change.

Steve Pafford

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