‘I’m Afraid for My Future’: Proposed Laws Threaten Gay Life in Russia

The laws, all but assured of enactment, would intensify a crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. freedom in Russia, which Vladimir V. Putin has cast as a corrosive Western influence.

Moscow — In an industrial block in northeastern Moscow on a recent Friday night, organizers of an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly art festival were assiduously checking IDs. No one under 18 allowed. They were trying to comply with a 2013 Russian law that bans exposing minors to anything that could be considered “gay propaganda.”

The organizers had good reason to be wary: Life has been challenging for gay Russians since the law passed, as the government has treated gay life as a Western import that is harmful to traditional Russian values and society.

Now Russia’s Parliament is set to pass a legislative package that would ban all “gay propaganda,” signaling an even more difficult period ahead for a stigmatized segment of society.

The laws would prohibit representation of L.G.B.T.Q. relationships in any media — streaming services, social platforms, books, music, posters, billboards and films — and, activists fear, in any public space as well. That’s a daunting prospect for queer people searching for community, validation or an audience.

“I’m afraid for my future, because with these kinds of developments, it won’t be as bright as I would like it to be,” said a drag artist who uses the stage name Taylor. Taylor’s performance on Friday before a small but enthusiastic crowd tackled themes of domestic violence, mental health and AIDS.

The proposed laws are part of an intensifying effort by President Vladimir V. Putin to cast Russia as fighting a civilizational struggle against the West, which he accuses of trying to export corrosive values.

The Kremlin is coupling the crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. expression with its rationale for the war in Ukraine, insisting that Russia is fighting not just Ukraine but all of NATO, a Western alliance that represents a threat to the motherland.

Mr. Putin drove home that argument in a speech last week, saying that the West can have “dozens of genders and gay pride parades,” but that it should not try to spread these “trends” elsewhere.

Aleksandr Khinstein, a deputy from the ruling United Russia party and the lead author of the new anti-gay bills, was even more blunt. “A special military operation is taking place not only on the battlefields,” he said, using the approved Kremlin euphemism for the war, “but also in the consciousness of the people, in their minds and in their souls. Today, we are fighting so that in Russia instead of mom and dad there isn’t ‘parent No. 1,’ ‘parent No. 2,’ ‘parent No. 3.’”

He got almost 400 of his 450 colleagues in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, to sign on as co-sponsors, and passage is almost assured. The bills will then be sent to the Federation Council, and then to Mr. Putin for approval.

Kremlin critics see the proposals as an attempt to create an internal enemy to divert attention from battlefield setbacks and an unpopular draft of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

“It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘Look, we have this special operation. If we lose, your kids will have their gender changed, they’ll take your kids away, it’ll be the stuff of nightmares,’” said Dr. Nikolai Lunchenkov, a physician who focuses on L.G.B.T.Q. health.

Dr. Lunchenkov said that in 2010, when he was in school, he felt that he could express his gay identity freely among his classmates. He contrasted that with 2018, when an L.G.B.T.Q.-focused organization invited him to give a lecture on sexual health in St. Petersburg. The police showed up to check everyone’s IDs.

He said the new laws could be used to shut down film and book festivals, prevent medical services, and more.

Violating the laws would carry stiff penalties. Any business that showed images of a family with two mothers or two fathers, for example, could be fined up to 5 million rubles, or about $81,400. (Individuals would face fines up to 400,000 rubles, about $6,500.) Movies featuring queer people could be denied distribution.

“This law proposing a full ban is very scary, because we work in nightclubs, we put on shows like this,” said Taylor, the drag performer. “We live in Russia, there is already tremendous pressure on us. And now we’re going to be completely oppressed.”

Social networks like Instagram and Facebook, where most artists advertise their shows, are already blocked in Russia. Many drag artists and festival organizers are talking about having to erase their content from social media.

Taylor said activities would “go back underground” and information about them would be relegated to word of mouth.

The proposed laws have prompted some L.G.B.T.Q. Russians to doubt that they can continue living in an environment that is increasingly hostile to anyone who challenge the Kremlin’s line, whether on the war or on queer lives. Russia has made it a crime to speak against the war.

On Sept. 21, Mr. Putin announced the conscription of some 300,000 troops, prompting demonstrations in many cities, and arrests of protesters. A woman who asked to be identified only as Yevgenia said she protested, but “that’s when I realized I don’t have any hope left in Russia anymore.” She and her housemates are preparing to emigrate next month, she said.

One clear repercussion of the 2013 law was to make school counselors and doctors wary of discussing anything around same-sex relationships or queer identity with young people. There are still online resources, but Yevgenia, 30, said she worried that under the new laws websites would be blocked and counseling groups shut down, depriving L.G.B.T.Q. teens of information and support.

Over the last nine years, 123 violations of the 2013 law have reached Russian courts, according to an analysis performed by Maksim Olenichev, a trial lawyer focused on L.G.B.T.Q. rights. “This is very few cases,” he said. The greater impact of the law, he said, was the way it had changed Russians’ perception of what constitutes socially acceptable behavior.

“The government basically says these people don’t have the same rights as everyone else,” he said. “‘L.G.B.T.Q. people are not fully human.’ This is how people will justify abuse toward them. The purpose is to make L.G.B.T.Q. people invisible in Russia.”

Mr. Olenichev said that though the police do not track hate crimes against queer people, he and his colleagues have noticed an increase in clients who have suffered identity-based attacks since 2013.

The rhetoric behind anti-gay laws may have dangerous consequences for gay Russians, said Vladimir Komov, a lawyer with the group Delo LGBT+.

The 2013 law was promoted as protecting children, while the new ones “seek to prohibit gay propaganda as a danger to the state system,” defining it as extremism, he said.

Dr. Lunchenkov said the proposed laws could leave gay people “afraid to go to medical clinics to get treatment or testing” for sexually transmitted diseases. About 1.5 million people in Russia live with H.I.V.

There will be less visible consequences as well, he added.

“Institutional oppression definitely leads to worsening mental health,” he said. “If you’re living under constant pressure and fear, this is definitely not good for your health.”

Some gay Russians doubt that the new laws will greatly affect them.

“I am more scared of being drafted to fight in the war than for being arrested because I am gay,” said Andrei Melnikov, 19. Lawmakers calling gays a danger on a par with war “is more funny than scary,” he added.

Until now, gay Russians and their allies have found expression despite restrictive laws. A recent Halloween-themed drag show at a popular Moscow club was packed. Some attendees feared it could be one of the last big shows in Russia.

“Of course this is screwed up, but this law will not make us disappear,” said a 21-year-old performer whose stage name is Philbertina, who is from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. “A year ago at these drag performances there were 30, 50 people. Look how many there are now — hundreds!”

“I’ll still be looking for ways to express myself,” Philbertina said. “This is my activism, and I will continue to put everything into it.”

by Valerie Hopkins and Valeriya Safronova
Source – The New York Times