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Criminalizing Difference

Laws against “gay propaganda” are sweeping across Russia, creating scapegoats and solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

by Galina Stolyarova 23 February 2012

A prominent Russian satirist told me recently that one of the key differences between Russian humor and that of Western Europe or the United States is that Russian people do not “get” gay jokes.


“Unlike Russians, people in America find gay jokes funny,” he told me. “In homophobic Russia, because the subject is taboo, such jokes are considered extremely vulgar. Russians are brought up to believe that being gay is worse than being a murderer. Here if you were to call a killer a killer, he would laugh. But homophobia is so strong that if you called him gay, he would kill you for saying it.”


He wasn’t exaggerating. Until 1991, homosexuality was a crime punishable by a prison sentence or a spell in a psychiatric clinic. And, although sexual orientation is no longer referred to in the criminal code, regional and city assemblies across the country have been introducing local laws that effectively declare homosexuality an abnormality and introduce fines for so-called “gay propaganda.”


What these lawmakers consider to be “gay propaganda” seems to include any kind of advocacy of homosexual rights or suggestion that gay people should have the same human rights enjoyed by others.


Laws against “gay propaganda” have been passed in Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, and Ryazan.


In St. Petersburg, the bill awaits its third and final reading before becoming law, and legislators in Novosibirsk say they will consider a bill.


Valentina Matviyenko, the former St. Petersburg governor who is now speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, has suggested that a nationwide “anti-gay propaganda” law be passed.  


The driving force behind the bill in St. Petersburg is Vitaly Milonov, a United Russia lawmaker in the city assembly. He says the measure is designed to “protect children and young people from getting mixed up in gay communities,” which, in his words, “defile innocent youths.”


One of Milonov’s key arguments is that homosexuality is denounced by the Russian Orthodox Church. The lawmaker thus apparently suggests that rules laid down by the church – in this case, refraining from homosexual relations – should be applied with the force of law to all citizens. And this is in a civil state, where church and state are officially independent of each other.


The St. Petersburg bill sets out fines for violators from 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($33 to $100) for individuals and from 30,000 to 50,000 rubles for any organization guilty of promoting gay culture. 


According to the bill, an act of gay propaganda can be any “public activity aimed at publicizing and advertising homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgender activities; dissemination of any information that can damage the health and moral formation of juveniles or that can cause the distorted view that there is a moral equivalence between unorthodox relationships and traditional marriages.”


Under rules like those, any media report showing a happy-looking gay couple could be deemed “gay propaganda.”


Although no polls have been taken to assess public support for the various bills, they clearly have supporters among ordinary Russians.


“Call me anything you like, but I don’t want my grandson to have a gay teacher,” an elderly female colleague, an editor at a local newspaper, told me. “You know, [a gay teacher] could give my boy wrong ideas. … Just to be on the safe side, I would prefer that gays weren’t allowed in schools.”


She tried to choose her words carefully, obviously unable to distinguish between a gay man and a pedophile. It seems almost the entire membership of certain regional legislative assemblies also find it impossible to make this distinction.


It’s bad enough that the anti-gay bills are being used by politicians to intrude into the private lives and relationships of ordinary people. What is worse, these assembly members are treating homosexuality as a crime.


Any bill attacking the promotion of gay rights surely goes back to the pre-Gorbachev era. It smacks of Article 70 of the Soviet criminal code in the 1970s, which introduced prison terms for “anti-Soviet propaganda.”


Earlier this year police in Arkhangelsk fined a young man who stood on a downtown street holding a poster that said “I am gay, and that’s normal.”


The authorities saw this one-man protest as a dangerous example of “gay propaganda.”


Russian life is often a bizarre blend of tragedy and farce. This pungent cocktail has long infected our humor. Now it’s poisoning our legislative process, leading to measures that any reasonable person elsewhere would marvel over.  


When Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the St. Petersburg city assembly for the democratic Yabloko party, who voted against the bill, told his teenage son about the legislation, the boy is said to have been less than impressed. “I like girls,” he told his father. “Even if a thousand gays came to my door and sang their propaganda songs, it wouldn’t make me cozy up to boys and give them flowers!”


St. Petersburg’s leading sexologists and psychologists have lobbied the assembly in an effort to explain the absurdity of the bill. But their message has largely fallen on deaf ears.


“Homosexuality, in 90 percent of cases, is something that one is born with,” says Lev Shcheglov, a physician, researcher, and the city’s leading sexologist.


“You get it at birth, just like your eye color or blood type. However hard I try, I can’t persuade you to change your blood type, can I? The human body just doesn’t work like that,” Shcheglov says.


But the discriminatory laws going through Russian legislatures today have little to do with medicine, psychology, or justice and everything to do with politics.


Politicians are offering up the gay community as a sacrificial victim to disgruntled Russians, perhaps in a desperate effort to divert some of the anger that drove the recent mass protests against Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. What the lawmakers may not realize is that their divisive legislation is more likely to stoke social tensions than to ease them.  


And  once the state launches a witch hunt against one minority, it’s likely to go after others as well. While gays, lesbians, and transgender people may be the target today, it could well be vegetarians, Catholics, or yoga practitioners next. After all, most of us are part of some minority or other.


There could be a ban on abortions, or divorce or civil marriages. If we go much further down that road we’ll have the United Russia party holding mass wedding ceremonies, with partners chosen for suitability by the party, along similar lines to the antics of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the Unification Church.


The crackdown on gays surely increases the growing resemblance between Russia’s political elite and a kind of crazed and deluded cult. 
Galina Stolyarova is a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, an English-language newspaper.
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