By Andrew Muse-Fisher
After the passing of a law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda” in June of last year, anti-LGBT violence has risen in Russia, spurred by a combination of homophobia and official oversight. Now with the Sochi Winter Olympics just weeks away, an opportunity to pressure Russia into having a more accepting stance toward the LGBT community is presenting itself. Unfortunately once the games pass, this community will most likely be left to its own devices.
The legislation, passed almost unanimously in the Duma, bans “propaganda of non-traditional relationships” and fines individuals and organizations that spread such propaganda to minors, making it nearly impossible to speak in favor of the LGBT community. The law, however, does not directly affect homosexual adults as the government still maintains homosexuality is a “right…enshrined in the constitution” . Regardless, it has sparked major controversy in countries that are generally more open to homosexuality. Because President Vladimir Putin signed it into law, most international criticisms have been directed at him. Putin claims that homosexuals “enjoy full rights and freedoms,” and that the law is meant to protect minors. Ultimately, Putin said he signed the anti-propaganda law because it is what the Russian people wanted.
Though the anti-propaganda law is the first of its kind at the federal level, several local governments have already implemented similar laws. This represents a collective push against homosexuality fueled by public misperceptions. Many in Russia liken homosexuality to pedophilia; others consider it a disease. Such misconceptions not only represent a general disdain for the LGBT community, but in some cases, a fear of it. Some citizens have acted on this disdain and fear, especially since the passing of the law at the federal level. In the past year, at least two people were murdered when their sexuality was made known. Less extreme, though equally oppressive, the government has shut down any and all attempts to protest the law. Indirectly protesting the law, several journalists in Russia publicly announced their homosexuality —they were promptly fired or forced by their company to resign . Putin claims the law does not deprive homosexuals of their freedom, but the reality is quite opposite. The social atmosphere in Russia is not one that guarantees equality for homosexuals. Rather, it is one that breeds oppression.
The LGBT community of Russia may not have any allies within the country, but there are many outspoken countries attempting to provide the community with the support it so desperately needs. Groups in England and the Netherlands have organized protests, demanding that the Olympics be held in a different, less homophobic country, while both Sweden and Australia painted sidewalks rainbow when Russian diplomats were visiting. Russia’s LGBT community has also received a great deal of support from the United States as President Obama selected gay athletes to be the nation’s representatives at the Olympics. Though these actions are effective in demonstrating solidarity with the Russian LGBT community, they are undeniably passive. Of course, no country is likely to risk its relationship with Russia over a social issue. If any change is expected, the Russian people must develop more open attitudes and call on the government to nullify the anti-propaganda law. They are, however, not likely to make such a change on their own so it comes down to the international community to set a human rights precedent that Russia may be compelled to follow. The best opportunity to set this example is coming February 7, at the start of the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
As the games approach, the world will have its eyes on Russia in anticipation of the games, but also with the expectation of a clash of political and social values between Russia and more socially liberal countries. Stephen Fry, along with other celebrities, has called for a boycott of the Olympics; however, this would hurt the athletes more than it would change the minds of Russians. Others plan to protest at the games, but the extent to which they can do so is usually up to the discretion of the host country—Russia. Furthermore the Olympic charter bans political protests by those participating in the events, limiting the effectiveness of any potential protests. The topic of gay rights in Russia is likely to be a hot issue until the closing ceremonies, but it will not be discussed in Russian media—at least not with any sort of empathy—and the protests are not likely to reach the ears of many Russians outside Sochi.
With a people and a government in favor of a law that limits a minority’s right to represent itself, many countries look at Russia with frustration, yet they remain more or less inactive even as a handful of extreme Russians turn to violence. A majority of Russians may not be acting violently toward homosexuals, but they certainly are not fighting for them either. Even though the attention of the world will be drawn to Russia for the Olympics, outside sources alone will not be able to persuade the people toward greater openness. When the games are over, Russia will return to its “normal” state: the way it has been since the law passed. Ultimately, it comes down to the people to accept homosexuality as normal, but progress on social issues of inequality takes years of persistence. The small minority that is the LGBT community may have persistence, but unfortunately, their fight is just beginning.
Photo by Frank Farm
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2. Ioffe, Julia. “Notes From Underground.” New Republic 244.14 (2013): 32-33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.