'Legalizing Homophobia': Russia's LGBT Community Braces For New Wave Of State-Sanctioned Discrimination


“Our ability to simply go out onto the street will be threatened, as well as our safety,” said Anna Kosvintseva, a web designer in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan, when asked about legislation currently making its way through parliament that would virtually ban any mention of same-sex relationships or transgender issues. “After all, we can’t expect help from anywhere or anyone.”

Many activists and people in Russia’s LGBT community link the draconian legislation with the country’s grinding war of aggression against neighboring Ukraine and the government’s efforts to rally broad support by insisting the country’s “traditional values” are under assault by “Satanists” at home and abroad.

“The war is not going well," said Vsevolod Galkin, a photographer and director who formerly worked for the LGBT magazine Kvir in Moscow. “So they are trying to turn the public discourse to some sort of scandal, some sort of divisions. This isn’t the first time this has happened. We see it every seven years or so.”

“The bill is complete nonsense that the government is throwing like a bone to conservative-minded citizens to distract them from military mobilization and economic problems,” said Dina Nurm, a feminist activist from Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region. “It is a new tool for denunciations.”

'The Morality Of A Country At War'

President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the “propagandizing of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors” in 2013. In addition, many LGBT activists have been targeted in recent years under Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” laws. Since the 2013 law was adopted, Russia has seen a dramatic spike in homophobic vigilante violence.

The proposed new legislation, which was given preliminary approval on October 27 by the State Duma – the lower house of Russia’s legislature – is expected to pass through parliament by the end of this month. It would radically expand the ban on “propaganda” of homosexual and transgender relations to all audiences. It would ban spreading information “that might foster in minors the desire to change their gender.” It would ban advertisements, films, books, art, and other materials hat “propagandize nontraditional sexual relations or desires.” Fines for violations would be significantly increased up to 400,000 rubles ($6,700).

“We have traditions, conscience, and an understanding of how we must think about children, families, the country, and how to preserve what was handed down to us by our parents,” said Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin just before the initial vote on the new law. He added that even more restrictions might be introduced to the bill before its second reading.

Everything besides “normal life,” Volodin added, “is sin, sodomy, and darkness, and our country will fight against it.”

The representative of the Russian Orthodox Church at the session said: “The morality of a country at war is a matter of our future victory. We have our own path of development, and we don’t need Europe’s nontraditional relations.”

On November 9, Putin signed a document titled The Foundations Of State Policy To Preserve And Strengthen Russian Traditional Spiritual And Moral Values. The text says: “This is a strategic planning document in the sphere of the national security of the Russian Federation.

“The Russian Federation considers its traditional values to be the foundation of Russian society, enabling it to defend and strengthen Russia’s sovereignty,” it reads.

'I Will Continue Speaking Out'

Yelena, 35, lives with her wife -- they were married three years ago in Portugal -- in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and volunteers at an organization that provides assistance to LGBT people. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, she asked that her identity be concealed out of safety concerns. She says the government is intentionally fostering homophobia.

“Most Russians aren’t homophobes…but in recent years at the political level they have whipped up such a hysteria around ‘other’ people that it is really getting scary,” Yelena said. "At any moment, a witch hunt could begin, and no one is going to defend you. So people are already living as unnoticeably as possible.”

Mikhail is an activist in the Volga River city of Samara who volunteers at several civic organizations providing assistance to LGBT people. He agrees that even in rural areas, many Russians are tolerant of gays as neighbors and members of their community.

“But the new law is aimed at preventing gays and lesbians from living openly and showing that they don’t pose any danger,” Mikhail said. “As a result, heterosexuals will interact less with gays or won’t know about their orientation. Over time, even for those who might be open to being tolerant, the LGBT community will be transformed into an enemy.”

Alla Chikinda, an LGBT activist in the Urals region city of Yekaterinburg, offered a similar take.

“Those who have been living more or less openly will shut themselves off, and those who have not yet come out, won’t,” she said. “People who support the LGBT community and donate to organizations or participate in joint projects, or simply openly proclaim their support, will stop doing so. This is the main danger of the law.”

'I Have No Idea How To Continue'

Yulia Alyoshina, a woman in Siberia’s Altai region who was Russia’s first openly transgender politician, was barred from the ballot in a 2021 city council election in the regional capital, Barnaul. The day after the Duma backed the new bill in the first of three required votes, she announced her withdrawal from politics.

“I have no idea how to continue conducting public political activities as an openly transgender woman,” she said, adding that the LGBT community could expect “even more serious hostility” if the “discriminatory” new law is adopted.

LGBT citizens say they already see increased hostility on the Internet and in real life. Aleksei Sergeyev, an LGBT activist in St. Petersburg, said that after one local LGBT organization was prevented from holding its meetings in a community center, it resorted to meeting in a public park.

“They were attacked by young nationalists and one of them got a head injury,” Sergeyev said. “There have been many television talk shows and films equating gays and pedophiles.”

Aleksandra, a 20-year-old lesbian in the southern city of Krasnodar, said the new law will “legalize homophobia.”

“Queer people have become enemies and criminals in their own country,” she said. “But I will continue speaking out against homophobia. and I won’t conceal my orientation. I am who I am.”

Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities, Siberia.Realities, and North.Realities