Most articles about the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals in Russia describe the current situation as a “crackdown,” a “backslide,” an “onslaught,” a “war.” If there’s an accompanying image, there’s a good chance it’s that of a bloodied face, a rainbow-clad Vladimir Putin, or a neo-Nazi marching.
Yes, there’re plenty of problems with Vladimir Putin’s assurances that discrimination is unthinkable in Russia simply because it is forbidden by the country’s constitution. They’ve outlawed corruption, too, yet the Russian Federation is ranked 133 out of 174 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012. The concept of discrimination is under-developed in Russia’s legal code, and its civil society groups working on tolerance and nondiscrimination issues have long been calling on the government to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. Violence motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity bias is also reportedly on the rise amidst the government-led effort to suppress the fundamental rights of LGBT Russians.
The attack on Moscow’s popular “Central Station” gay club on November 23 and the bomb threat delaying opening of the Side by Side film festival in Saint Petersburg are but few recent examples of the type of violence that must be investigated and prosecuted by the Russian government.
Yet little is said about the LGBT rights groups’ ability to survive in Russia, about how they continue to operate and maintain direct services or educational & advocacy initiatives on behalf of their embattled communities in modern Russia, where consensual same-sex relations are still allowed since decriminalization in 1993. What Vladimir Putin is right about is that anyone in Russia can indeed rise to power and prominence no matter whom that person loves (caveat: the love has to stay secret if it’s not “traditional” enough for the Kremlin).
Let’s call this gray area the Wiggle Room in which Russian LGBT rights advocates are able to work today. It is a key indicator that will make or break LGBT rights in Russia.
Perhaps in response to the unprecedented international outcry over the federal ban on “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors that was enacted by President Putin following a unanimous State Duma vote in June 2013, the Wiggle Room has been growing as the boundaries of what LGBT rights advocates can do publicly have been expanding. There are several factors that could be considered to better evaluate the Wiggle Room’s expanding limits, including these five:
1. LGBT groups “Coming Out” and “Side by Side” are “foreign agents” no more!
Side by Side’s legal heartache is almost gone.
The “foreign agent” designations against LGBT organization “Coming Out” and “Side by Side” Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival, both Saint Petersburg-based, have been dropped this fall following successful legal challenges by the groups who won their appeals earlier this year. “Side by Side” is hosting its annual festival on November 21-30 this year (despite the bomb threat, the festival’s organizers reshuffled the schedule and are moving forward), and “Coming Out” has held, without a hitch, its fifth annual Queer Pride Festival, a nine-day event featuring talks, workshops, art presentations, and films, in September 2013.
2. The first repeal! Arkhangelsk trashes its regional ban on “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors.
Arkhangelsk: the aurora borealis today, rainbows tomorrow?
In October, the governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast repealed the region’s law banning propaganda of homosexuality to minors. Such regional laws preceded the federal legislation, and Arkhangelsk was the second region in Russia to adopt a “propaganda” law to limit the growing public influence of LGBT rights organization “Rakurs,” which in 2009 won a legal battle against the Ministry of Justice that tried to prevent the organization from amending its name and charter to expressly announce their focus on LGBT rights. From Arkhangelsk, the regional ban relay went to Saint Petersburg, where gay rights groups are the most active and visible in the country and where the Russian LGBT Network is headquartered. Though the repeal of the regional ban in Arkhangelsk is not a milestone, it is still advisable to remove these expressly homophobic pieces of regional legislation. It’s unclear that the dominoes will fall in the same direction, but gossip from Kostroma suggests that other regions may follow suit, and then the sole focus will be on the federal law.
3. Russia makes a promise at the UN to investigate and prosecute homophobic incidents.
The United Nations: “I need to sleep on it.”
This summer, Russia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the United Nations Human Rights Council resulted in the Kremlin’s acceptance of Recommendation 140.84, from Switzerland, which urged Russia to “take all necessary measures to prevent violence and intolerance of a racist, xenophobia and homophobic character in conformity with international law and standard.” The main problem with homophobic violence in Russia is that it’s oft-ignored by law enforcement authorities who do a poor job in investigating and prosecuting such attacks. Russia’s acceptance of the recommendation gives its LGBT rights activists an additional advocacy tool; because of the voluntary nature of the UPR process Russia didn’t have to take this recommendation, yet the country’s acceptance means the government can be serious about addressing acts of homophobic violence. The recommendation is particularly important due to Russia’s usual unwillingness to expressly recognize any language about sexual orientation or gender identity in the international fora. Russia also has made great progress in addressing racist violence since the peak of such incidents in 2008 thanks to a much stronger law-enforcement response; one hopes the country is capable of doing the same to stem homophobic attacks.
4. An activist’s fine for “propaganda” overturned by a regional court in Ryazan.
“Homosexuality is normal,” says Irina Fedotova. “It’s not propaganda,” says a Russian court.
In early October, a regional court in Ryazan overturned an administrative fine for “propaganda” of homosexuality against rights activist Irina Fedotova. Ryazan was the first region to adopt a “propaganda” law, which was used against Ms. Fedotova in 2009 when she stood with a sign in front of a school and a children’s library. The activist took her case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which ruled in her favor pointing to Russia’s undermining of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by violating Ms. Fedotova’s right to free expression and protection from discrimination. The Committee’s decision was a big international win for Russian LGBT activists, but the fact that a Russian court then embraced the verdict and overturned the fine is even more important for advocacy within Russia. The message from the Ryazan verdict is clear: standing with a sign that says “Homosexuality is normal” in front of a school can not be considered “propaganda” of homosexuality. Are you listening, Sochi?!
5. LGBT rights demonstrations officially allowed and well protected during the G20 Summit in Russia.
Russian police all smiles during the G20 Summit: Protecting LGBT activists.
During the G20 summit in Strelna, near Saint Petersburg, the municipal authorities allowed an LGBT rights demonstration to take place at the Mars Fields in the center of the city. Though you can argue that City Hall was under immense pressure to allow the event due to the G20 presence, it still shows that the Russian government is capable of doing the right thing once in a while.
I was in Saint Petersburg during the G20 to meet with activists and observe the demonstration, and in my estimation the activists were outnumbered by the protesters four to one. Still, the area was well-protected by the police who were on their best behavior and resembled a professional, organized Western European police force. The cops were thanked by activists before boarding a police-driven bus that carried them to safety. Again, the message is clear: Russia can do the right thing when it wants to. See for yourself:
These examples illustrate that although international attention was important, the real work for Russian LGBT rights activists is in courts and on the streets. They will succeed only if the government stops ignoring their problems and becomes more cooperative, giving LGBT rights organizations and other civil society groups more breathing room. The non-ideological nature of Russia’s “war on gays” means that if the Kremlin realizes that populist homophobia isn’t useful anymore, things can go back to “normal.” To help ease this transition, the world should continue speaking out and engaging with Russia at the highest level.
Now is the time to go to Russia—for the Olympics, for the culture and food, and, most importantly, for the people.