Written by Anoushka Patel Edited by Queenie Lin and Annika Lilja
The supreme court in Russia has ruled that the “international LGBT movement” will be labelled extremist, in a move that activists have warned will lead to arrests and prosecutions of the already oppressed LGBTQ+ community. The ruling effectively outlaws LGBTQ+ activism in a country growing increasingly conservative since the start of the war in Ukraine. The “extremist” label could mean that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer people living in Russia will receive lengthy prison sentences if deemed by the authorities to be part of the so called “international LGBT public movement.”
Earlier this month, the justice ministry filed a request that the “international LGBT movement” should be labelled extremist, without clarifying what exactly is meant by the term. There has been much concern that the ambiguous wording of the law allows Russian authorities to persecute anyone they deem to be part of the “movement.” Such has been the case when silencing Putin’s political opponents, such as Alexei Navalny, who has been dealt a three-decade prison sentence for allegedly “inciting and financing extremism” and “inciting children to dangerous acts.” Similar arguments have been made by the Russian government in order to justify their demonisation of the LGBTQ+ population.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has launched a campaign to promote “traditional values,” with the Russian leader making anti-gay rhetoric one of the cornerstones of his political agenda. As such, Putin can position himself as the protector of conservative Russian values against supposed Western immorality, which includes the increased acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ+ people in the West. The Russian president repeated his disgust for the LGBTQ+ community during a speech this month referring to trans people as “transformers.”
Friday’s lawsuit comes after several recent laws were introduced to suppress LGBTQ+ people in Russia. This year, Putin passed a law that banned “LGBT propaganda” among adults. The bill criminalised any act regarded as an attempt to promote what Russia calls “non-traditional sexual relations” in the media or in public. In one such case, a Russian broadcaster had to discolour a rainbow featured in a South Korean music video to not violate the “gay propaganda law,” as the rainbow is commonly used as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community.
Transgender people have become one of the main targets of the Russian elite, and over the summer, Russian lawmakers banned medical procedures and administrative processes that would help a person to change gender. The act forbids any “medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person,” as well as banning changing a person’s gender in official documents or public records. It also annuls marriages in which one person is trans and prevents transgender people from becoming foster or adoptive parents.
Russia’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ people started a decade ago when the president first proclaimed a focus on “traditional family values,” supported by the Russian Orthodox church. In 2013, the Kremlin adopted legislation that banned any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. In 2020, Putin pushed through constitutional reform that outlawed same-sex marriage and last year he signed a law prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among adults.
This follows a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric amongst a number of European nations, where traditional, conservative governments have been elected. One such example is Hungary, where the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, passed a controversial law in 2021, which conflates homosexuality and paedophilia, and is modelled partly on the Russian law that banned so-called “gay propaganda” among minors. The Hungarian law further infringes on the rights of LGBTQ+ people by making it an offence to “promote or portray” homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors. Although the law received much backlash from other European leaders, with a referendum in April 2022 on the issue failed to secure the 50% of voters required, meaning the law is still in place.
A similar case can be seen in Poland, where the LGBTQ+ community remains the least legally protected in the EU. For the past eight years under the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) queer communities were consistently scapegoated and portrayed as an internal enemy. In 2020, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, claimed that “LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology”, and has attempted to replicate the “gay propaganda” law in Russia by banning sexuality education in schools and public institutions. This kind of hate speech was echoed by several Law and Justice-controlled local authorities, which declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.” Although the European Commission warned that any regions upholding discriminatory policies would have their funding revoked, several counties and municipalities in Poland have retained their “LGBT-free zones,” to the detriment of the queer population.
This homophobia has been particularly targeted at transgender people, including in my country, the UK. The government recently confirmed that it is not going to ban conversion therapy, which is a harmful practice that attempts to force predominantly young people to reject their homosexuality and gender identity in favour of cisgender and heteronormativity. The former Home Secretary is infamous for her anti-trans comments, which include a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank where she asserted that it is lawful for schools to deadname and misgender trans pupils, and that schools have a duty to out trans pupils to their families. This is despite this being a violation of the 2010 Equality Act, under which gender reassignment remains a protected characteristic.
Although LGBTQ+ activism and events such as Pride have had record levels of attendance in recent years, progress in Europe has been a relatively recent improvement, and there is still much to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people. According to a report by the European International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA), violence against LGBTQ+ people reached its highest point in the past decade in Europe in 2022. There was a stark increase in violence against LGBTQ+ individuals, including planned attacks but also suicides, against the backdrop of “rising and widespread hate speech from politicians, religious leaders, right-wing organizations and media pundits.” This backslide on LGBTQ+ rights by European governments presents a dangerous reality for LGBTQ+ people, who are being used as scapegoats by governments in their culture wars and identity politics in order to distract from much larger issues that threaten their credibility.
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