‘Many adolescents are very frightened about their orientation’
Members of Russia’s LGBT network say the new law is inciting violence
A protester holds up a placard during a demonstration against Russia’s anti-gay legislation near Downing Street in London. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters
Russia’s law on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” commonly known in as the “gay propaganda” law does not ban all conversations on homosexuality as claimed by some western critics but, according to Tatyana Glushkova, it is so wide-ranging that even the two members of the Russian parliament who introduced the law could find themselves in breach of their own legislation.
Glushkova, a lawyer who advises LGBT clients and is a member of Russia’s LGBT network, pointed to a hypothetical situation in which deputies Yelena Mizulina and Olga Batalina discuss their law on TV. If they did so at a time when viewing by under 18s was endorsed by the TV station they could, technically at least, face a hefty fine.
Any public discussion on homosexuality that can be seen or heard by children would be in breach of the law so those who organise workshops on the issue have to ensure that they are confined to adults and that no one under 18 can stray into the attendance.
So far no one has been found guilty under the controversial law but that has not stopped police harassment of gays on the streets of Russian cities. Glushkova cited three cases.
In July in Moscow near the Children’s Library an activist held up a poster with the message “It’s normal to be gay.” He was taken to a police station and held for six hours even though police were only permitted to hold him for three. He was then charged under the new law and also accused of holding a public meeting without permission.
The next step in the process under Russian law was the sending of a “protocol” (a report of the incident) to a judge. In this case the protocol was rejected by the judge on a technicality. In the Volga city of Kazan, which has a largely Muslim population, an activist displayed an anti-homophobia poster and was taken into custody. What happened after that is not clear but no further action has been taken and the judge has up to a year to decide on whether to accept the police report or not.
In Murmansk in northern Russia a Dutch LGBT television crew interviewed a 16-year-old boy without knowing his age. Their video recording was seized by police and they were summoned to appear in court. The Dutch crew arrived in court at the appointed time and were met by the judge’s assistant who said: “What are you doing here. Go away.”
The law is a very new one but even at this early stage a pattern appears to be emerging of police taking action and judges shying away from decisions.
Outside the legal framework, however, Glushkova said that neo-Nazi groups feel the law and the publicity surrounding it gives them justification for their actions. Some of them set up “sting” operations, where they get an under-age boy to proposition a gay man and violence ensues.
I met two other female LGBT activists in a Moscow bar to discuss the issue. The network is almost equally divided between women and men but women appear to be more forthcoming to the foreign media.
Neither was prepared to give her full name. Kristina was an activist from outside Moscow and Katya worked on a round- the-clock “hotline” organised by the network. Although the law was vague the one thing that appeared to be clear was that minors must be involved in order to constitute an offence. I asked them were we breaking the law by sitting in Sally O’Brien’s Irish Bar discussing homosexuality. “No we are not,” Kristina replied, “there are no adolescents here.”
Katya says her hotline gets about 10 to 15 calls daily. Mature people understood the situation but many adolescents were very frightened about their sexual orientation, some thinking they were suffering from some sort of mental illness. “We are afraid for teenagers,” Katya said. “We don’t know what to do with them. Their parents’ mood is usually aggressive because they are strongly against it. I know there’s a group of teenagers in Moscow. We are ready to organise psychological training for them but we don’t know if we can do it or not. Nobody wants to take responsibility among themselves on the issue. Because the situation is very unclear. As a result they remain without any support.”
Western countries have undergone a process of liberalisation over a long number of years but Russia emerged from Soviet isolation only in 1992. The majority of Russians are virulently anti-LGBT. Katya believes things will change but it will take a long time. “I think we will have a bright future in 50 years.”
The use of the phrase “bright future” was loaded with irony. It was a svetloye budushcheye, a “bright future”, that Soviet citizens were continuously promised in the communist era.