As we edge tantalisingly close to marriage equality here in the United Kingdom, spare a thought for our LGBT brethren in the Russian Federation. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin will take his seat at the top table of world leaders at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Indeed, he has already held high-level talks at 10 Downing Street with David Cameron. Agenda? Syria, trade, the global economy. Not a hint of a conversation about what is fast becoming the most pernicious and flagrant human rights abuse in post-Soviet history.
LGBT rights in the world’s largest country have been under attack for quite some time now. However, the situation has spiralled so quickly and so viciously out of control in recent times that there is now a very real risk to the personal safety – and lives – of LGBT people on the streets of cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg.
Of course, public hostility towards LGBT people is not a new phenomenon in Russia. A 2002 survey found that 60% of those questioned disagreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Fast forward 11 years and that figure has risen to 74%. To understand the causes of the increase in opposition to gay rights, one only has to look at the anti-LGBT propaganda peddled by Russia’s local and federal government. This had come in the form of legislation that has seen LGBT rights and fundamental human entitlements such as freedom of assembly and expression brutally curtailed.
The authorities in Moscow finally took the draconian step of banning gay pride events outright for 100 years in 2012; this merely formalised a train of events whereby Pride organisers would – annually – be refused permission to rally, would proceed to defy the ban, leading to them being openly beaten by bystanders and police alike. Notable victims of this physical abuse include veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and his Russian counterpart, lawyer Nikolai Alekseev.
Not content with stifling LGBT activists’ right to march, one by one, many of Russia’s oblasts (regions) have sought to silence its LGBT citizens by introducing laws prohibiting the dissemination of ‘gay propaganda’. This deliberately vague reference has been applied to an unfathomably wide variety of contexts, the legislation in St Petersburg being particularly insidious with its reference to ‘homosexualism, transgenderism, bisexualism and paedophilia’.
This profoundly misleading ‘child protection’ thread also ran through the bill adopted last week by Russia’s lower house of parliament. Passed unanimously (436-0) with just one abstention, the legislation bans the distribution of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ to minors and goes beyond the previous prohibition on gay pride marches in the capital by outlawing rallies anywhere in the country. Heavy fines await those found guilty of promoting ‘non-traditional relations’ via the media or internet. Within hours of the Duma passing the bill, reports emerged of LGBT activists being beaten on the streets of Moscow; one particularly disturbing photograph showed a campaigner curled up on the ground as a group of schoolboys and young men rain blows down upon him.
So, aside from the casual, almost daily state-perpetuated violence brought to bear upon LGBT people in Russia, what have been the practical implications of these laws upon those who continue to defy such incursions on their basic human rights? In the last week, Nikolai Alekseev, the country’s foremost gay rights advocate was fined 10,000 roubles (£200) for contravening St Petersburg’s anti-gay propaganda law by picketing a local government office. To add insult to injury, the fine was levied to contribute to the legal costs incurred by Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the legislation – the oppressed compensating the oppressor. If this seems unfathomable, consider if you will the case of Anna Annenkova, fined the equivalent of £400, simply for holding up a rainbow flag in public, on which were displayed the words ‘Love is stronger’. Even Madonna has come under intense criticism by conservative groups in Russia, a group of which sued the superstar for her open support for gay rights, expressed at a concert in St Petersburg last year. Thankfully, the lawsuit failed; however, it does serve to demonstrate the veneer of invincibility being bestowed upon those who would seek to curb the fundamental freedoms of their fellow citizens.
It seems almost surreal that, just weeks after the United Nations unveiled The Riddle (a video message condemning the fact that homosexuality is still a criminal offence in 76 countries), Russia – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – would discriminate against its LGBT citizens at the highest levels of government, despite having decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993.
As reports emerge of a spike in incidents of homophobic assaults and killings, we at So So Gay are left asking what it will take for the international community to act. As the leaders of the world’s most powerful industrialised nations gather in County Fermanagh this week, surely there is a golden opportunity to urge President Putin to put an immediate end to this madness. It seems appropriate for Russia to be reminded of its obligations under the International Bill of Human Rights. Furthermore, while we are realistic about the likelihood of sanctions being imposed for Russia’s blatant disregard for the rights and safety of a significant proportion of its population, we would expect leaders who claim to support LGBT equality to look beyond their own borders, straight into the bruised, bloodied eyes of those assaulted by homophobes empowered by their country’s politicians – the very people elected to protect them – and to act assertively.
To quote Navi Pullay, the UN High Commisioner for Human Rights in The Riddle; ‘Every nation is obligated by international human rights law to protect all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from torture, discrimination and violence’. Russia’s LGBT community deserves no less. We stand with them in solidarity and urge David Cameron and co. to do the same.