Photo: David Frenkel / Mediazona
Last month, Russian State Duma deputies gave their preliminary approval to a new law that will ban the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ expanding the ban to cover adults, not only children. The law, if passed, will affect every Russian citizen. The opponents of the new legislation use one of the few remaining legal means of expressing their disagreement, urging their representatives to block it. Before the imminent new wave of oppression, we explore what is happening to the Russian queer community while the ban is passing all required stages.
“These are laws that will allow our families to be free of fear for what their children might learn in school, see in a movie or a theatre play, as nowadays, these are often outlets for destructive values,” Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the Russian State Duma explained the reasoning behind the new proposal to ban all “LGBT-propaganda” in the country.
On August 31st, Alexander Khinshtein, a representative of the ruling party, United Russia, proposed multimillion fines for “propagating non-traditional sexual relations” and “spreading” information about such relationships among teenagers. The deputy likened this legislation to banning “propaganda of paedophilia”.
Two months later, the draft bill was introduced to the State Duma. By the the first reading, the bill was edited to include “spreading of information capable of evoking in underaged persons a desire to change their gender assigned at birth”, while “spreading” of information regarding LGBTQ+ among teenagers went from being an administrative offence to the status of an aggravating criminal factor.
Previously, the Russian Code of Administrative Offences contained a ban on the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among underaged persons”. Now, the deputies have decided to “protect” citizens of all ages.
“Public endorsement and forming of an attractive image of non-traditional sexual relations is dangerous not only to children and teenagers incapable of critical thinking but to society at large. It poses a threat to demographic as well as economic growth,” the executive summary states. The author of the legislation, Khinshtein, clarified that it will be applied to the internet, mass media, books, streaming platforms, movies and advertisements.
Vyacheslav Volodin is adamant that laws of this kind are protecting citizens “from the darkness that is increasingly descending upon the world”. Khinshtein even connected the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation to the war in Ukraine: “The special military operation takes place not only on the battlefields but in the minds of people.” Nina Ostanina of KPRF, successor to the Soviet Communist Party, endorsed the legislation: “We follow our own path of evolution, we don’t need no imposing of European non-traditional values.” The BBC notes that during the proceedings, not a single deputy expressed disagreement, while the officials discussing the protections of the children were all aged 40 and over.
Despite constant government pressure, there are multiple organisations in Russia fighting for LGBTQ+ rights. Activists told Mediazona that they want to continue their work even under the new oppressive legislation.
“If the new law banning ‘gay propaganda’ does pass, it will have no effect on the work of Vykhod,” Alexander Voronov, managing director, says. “We will continue working through social media, recording our ‘Queercast,’ spreading information on LGBTQ+ people and the normalcy of a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, we will continue providing psychological, legal and vocational support and general help to LGBTQ+ communities in Russia, as well as to Russian speakers abroad.”
This spring, the Vykhod team was forced to flee the country. “If the law passes and the court decides that we are breaking it, they can fine the hell out of us; I will solely bear all the consequences, I’ll make do”, he emphasises. “The only change I can foresee at this point, is that we could finally drop the stupid ‘18+’ content advisory.”
Human rights advocacy organisation Sphere launched a campaign against the new law. The activists are asking Russians to urge their representatives to block the proposal. According to Sphere, some 10,000 requests have already been sent out to the State Duma deputies.
“Currently we are facing termination as a legal entity in Russia, however that would only halt our work as a charity foundation, not as a team of professionals,” Noel Shaida, Sphere’s head of PR, emphasised. Following a request from the Ministry of Justice, the court mandated the foundation’s official termination back in April citing their rejection of “traditional sexual relations”.
The new bill introduces gargantuan fines not only for spreading information regarding LGBTQ+, which was the case formerly but for information that may cause teenagers to “want to change their sex”—likely a reference to gender transition.
“Obviously we will have fewer outlets for our work, they might even pin a case on me personally or make me pay a fine. I don’t know how it will work, making predictions is pointless these days,” trans-activist Ekaterina Messorash says. “Personally, I will keep doing what I am doing and I don’t give a damn what the people who destroyed the very notion of human rights in my country think. If the government doesn’t abide by its laws, why should we?”
The new legislation will likely affect LGBTQ+-friendly spaces allowed to exist previously.
“Right now, while the law is yet to be passed, we don’t understand how to keep working,” Nikita Egorov-Kirillov of Popoff Kitchen queer techno events project says. “Probably we will have to put up advisory at all our events. Maybe we will have to make our parties private. At this point, we’re just signing petitions opposing this law and we’ll see what happens next.”
Last year Popoff Kitchen went on a tour, with events in Rostov-on-Don, Kazan, Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, Ufa, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Tomsk, Ekaterinburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.
“I don’t think that Russian society is homophobic at its core. Homophobia is a social construct that was imposed on people. A person cannot be born with an innate hatred for people who like each other,” Egorov-Kirillov was convinced back then.
The Gender Blender project hosting burlesque and drag shows in St. Petersburg has decided to pause offline events because of the new legislation. “We operate as a legal entity in order to officially sell tickets to our events, we sign contracts. If the law is passed, it will put us in serious jeopardy,” the group explained on Instagram.
Maria Chesnokova, who organises Nazlo Mame parties, agrees: “We are no longer able to speak freely of sex education like we used to. Right now we are focusing on fostering a supportive community and organising non-romantic speed dating, teaching people about active consent, new encounters and safe processing of new experiences.”
Other event organisers have long been facing state persecution. LGBT film festival Bok o bok is being held in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities each year since 2008. Law enforcement and homophobic activists made numerous attempts to disrupt the events, at times fabricating bomb threats. In 2021, when the festival was moved online due to COVID-19 restrictions, Roskomnadzor, the censorship agency, blocked its website.
Couple of weeks ago, festival’s VK group received a notice from the social network demanding the removal of “controversial content” and “information that endorses non-traditional sexual relations”.
The new legislation sparked lively discussions among artists and fanfic writers releasing queer-themed art. “Creators, who used to draw/write LGBT-content, whatcha gonna do?” one artist with the handle Arinavah tweeted.
Many are planning on ignoring the new ban, others claim that the legislation incentivised them to become even more active. Part of the community feels the anxiety. “[I will] keep writing whatever I want. But I will conceal my identity. And I will live in fear. With more fear than I used to live with,” says Riya Alv, a fic writer.
Creators are looking into ways of protecting themselves: staying anonymous, moving to foreign platforms, adding anti-LGBTQ+ advisory to throw off the authorities, or leaving the country. Some creators note that the authorities are, clearly, unable to censor all LGBTQ+ content online. One Twitter user writes: “There’s a legal punishment for anti-war slogans, and yet Twitter is chock-full of ‘discrediting of the Russian military’.” Moreover, the usage of explicit language online is also a punishable offence, yet no one has ever been fined: “I rest my case, let’s just keep creating content.”
Russia’s largest fanfic website Ficbook announced that it will not be banning LGBTQ+ content or passing authors’ personal data to the Russian authorities. “Ficbook is not under Russian jurisdiction, nor does it operate under its rules,” — states the platform’s message.
However, in July Ficbook removed a short story because of the author’s annotation expressing support for Ukraine and urging Russians to protest. The website’s managers cited their policy of banning “works that touch on recent tragedies or political conflicts.”
Book publishers are also preparing for the new law. LikeBook, a publishing company, decided to “make censorship more obvious” by blacking out erotic scenes in “To smithereens”, a book about one gay relationship. The new legislation is bound to exacerbate self-censorship, which is already permeating the publishing business, experts say.
“In the 9 years since the law banning ‘gay-propaganda’ to underage children was passed, the courts processed a hundred cases,” lawyer Maxim Olenichev refered to official data in his interview with Meduza.
“The law itself is not the source of negative impact. It’s self-censorship. For instance, clubs would refuse to rent their space out for an LGBT-themed party, while members of the LGBT community are being forced to ‘quietly’ quit their jobs; teachers, for instance,” he noted.
Kirill Fedorov, a psychologist and a gay rights activist, urged calm. “There’s no point in panicking. I remember the fear-mongering around the ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013. It’s over, there will be no parades, we won’t be able to provide help to the underage, all LGBT orgs will get closed, they will ban coming-outs, or people of the same gender walking hand-in-hand… 80% of these fears turned out to be anxious fantasies,” he said.
Igor Kochetkov, a co-founder of the “Russian LGBT Net” advocacy group, emphasised that organisations assisting queer persons “not only continued working but even scaled up their effort.”
Kochetkov is certain that the government is, for the most part, aiming to incite fear: “This is the point of all of these so-called repressive laws: you should be afraid. If you are afraid, then it worked. From then on, the bans don’t even need to be enforced, or not very often, anyway.”
Editor: Maria Klimova
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