From Russia without Love

By Conor Ahern, Ford Foundation Fellow

“If it was up to me, I’d kill [gay people] but the government doesn’t allow that.”

This statement, given by a member of the gay-hunting neo-Nazi group “Occupy-Pedofilyay,” might just sum up the one right that Russian LGBT people can still claim in their home country.

Putin’s Russia is a terrible place to be a lot of things, and it is an especially dangerous place to be an LGBT person.  And in contrast with (most of) the rest of the world, things in Russia only seem to be getting worse. For all intents and purposes, neither Russians nor foreign nationals can bring up homosexuality without risking violating a far-reaching “anti-propaganda” law aimed at silencing LGBT activists, with “violators” subject to thousands of dollars in fines and potential jail time. Pride Parades have been banned in Moscow for the next 100 years. And now fascist skinheads are using the Internet to entrap gay youth, humiliating or exposing them online, assaulting them, and labeling them pedophiles. LGBT Russians are thus forced to navigate survival in a society in which their government restricts the rights of queer people to do just about anything aside from staying alive.

Given the historical backdrop, the current state of affairs is not completely surprising. Russia has never been a particularly hospitable place to be LGBT. As a comparison: between 1989 and 1993, Gallup polls showed that the proportion of Americans who believed that LGBT people should not have equal job opportunities dropped from 18% to 14%; meanwhile, between 1989 and 1994, polls showed that the percentage of Russians who believed that LGBT people should be executed dropped from 31% to 23%.

This is not progress, and it is no excuse for incremental complacency. It would be just as perverse to call this progress as it would be to admire the evolved quality of the Russian skinheads who merely beat LGBT people instead of administering executions, as their forebears in the 1990s might have done. And we cannot be complacent or patient because the very same factors that caused our own oppressive LGBT structures to begin to crumble – free courts, free media, and the openness of LGBT citizen and ally dissenters – are completely lacking under Putin’s regime.

So what is there to be done? Merits aside, I can’t see an Olympic or vodka boycott doing much to alleviate the plight of LGBT Russians. but at least these things have got the conversation started. People are beginning to become aware of this oppression, and the more we talk the more our objections can fill the void of silence imposed by Putin. And this goes as well for all of the other places in the world where LGBT people are violently abused, oppressed, and threatened by their governments (for example, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe recently threatened to behead gay citizens and the death penalty may still be imposed for same-sex sexual activity in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen).

Please ensure that this message does not stop with you.