Russian Queerasing: How the Russian LGBTQ+ Community is Becoming Invisible

Cover Image: 1994, Russian-born artist and activist Slava Mogutin kissing boyfriend Robert Filippini after attempting to marry him in celebration of his 20th birthday. The image has now become an international symbol for the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia.

By Vava Lotareva

On December 5th 2022 the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, signed new legislation banning all “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” as a part of the state’s so-called pursuit of protecting “traditional values”. The law deeming “gay propaganda” illegal is not new in Russia but, until its recent expansion, was solely directed at minors. The new legislation came into force immediately, making any broadcast of LGBTQ-related topics in film, TV, books, podcasts, and on social media illegal. 

Despite the ban being abhorrent in itself, the blurred lines of the new legislation also give no specification of “gay propaganda”. For example, a Russian government official claimed that “gay propaganda” could be as much as saying that Oscar Wilde has achieved his popularity through his sexuality, as it is feared that this could create a positive reception of homosexuality. Some are even going as far as to equate queerness to paedophilia. This law is also encouraging the criminalisation of classic Russian novels like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Nabokov’s Lolita for containing descriptions of non-traditional sexual relationships, as well as banning films like Call Me By Your Name (2017), and certain theatre productions. These actions are making one thing clear: the Russian queer community is being erased by this new law. Moreover, Russian lawyers claim that “its undefined rules will lead to the unpredictability of its application, resulting in judicial arbitrariness” and due to the lack of independence of the judicial system, will pose a greater danger to Russia’s queer community. 

Since 2013, when the original legislation was introduced, spreading information that ‘promoted’ or normalised non-heterosexual relationships to children was prohibited and the authorities were to “protect” children from such information. “Protection” implied that authorities were able to give out separate fines for individuals and businesses, as well as suspension of companies and deportation of foreigners who had committed this offence. 

Authorities were allowed to report anything that could even slightly remind people of the LGBTQ+ community. This consequently led to the infamous incident when the head of the Russian Women’s Union complained to the President about the impact of Rainbow ice-cream (produced and sold in Russia) on children. She then requested to remove rainbow colouring from public places in order to stop this supposedly heinous attempt to ‘turn’ Russian children gay. She later confessed to equating the rainbow to the swastika and, as absurd as it is, this homophobic narrative has only gained more recognition among some Russians

Historically, Russia was never progressive when it came to gay rights and today’s legislation is the result of more than a hundred years of homophobia that was deliberately encouraged by society and state. During the Russian Empire (1721-1917), homosexuality was heavily judged and prosecuted. For example, Tchaikovsky, the famous composer from the 1870s, who had several male lovers, was forced to marry a woman and lived with her for 20 days in an attempt to clear up rumours. After the 1917 communist revolution, homosexuality was de facto briefly legalised when the Bolsheviks abolished the Tsarist constitution. Although the overall attitude towards homosexuality did not change, there are examples of the gay community enjoying this brief window of legalisation. In the 1920s, the German Travesti theatre  – in which men dress as women and vice versa – became popular among Soviet gay men. They would become popular by impersonating famous ballerinas like Matilda Kshesinskaya, the lover of Russia’s last Tsar.

During Stalin’s Terror (1937 – 1953) homosexuality was criminalised again while millions of Soviet people were imprisoned, ultimately leading to the spread of the Russian prison caste system. It recommended horrific treatment of gay men, often resulting in incidents of rape and making them both clean and sleep in toilets. Being gay or effeminate became seriously dangerous and hasn’t changed since. This prison-oriented perception of homosexuality is today widely regarded to be the root of the societal rejection of LGBTQ+ rights and the rise of homophobia in Russia in recent years. It is clear from the increasing use across Russia of the slur Gayrope (words “Gay” and “Europe” joined) to emphasise the “decay” of European civilisation

In today’s Russia, the government is continuing to encourage homophobia and transphobia. Although Russians are still legally allowed to have a homosexual relationship and to go by preferred pronouns and gender identities, this, however, does not stop their lack of media representation and an increased chance of harassment. The Russian media-monitoring federal agency, Roskomnadzor, has been instructed to block websites containing LGBTQ+ content without a court order. Two transgender content creators, Dasha Kareyka and Hilmi Forks, were arrested on charges of “gay propaganda” on TikTok on 13th January. They are facing a fine and a further investigation in relation to a broadcast on Twitch, in which the bloggers were discussing gender-affirming surgery. 

In the government’s attempt to broaden information control within Russia, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been blocked within Russia since March 2022, making it much harder to help the queer Russians that are still inside the country by sharing their content through social media. Although these social networks are still available through VPN, which is a network that helps to encrypt user’s traffic and makes it harder to track user’s online activity, not everyone has access to it. Alternative to sharing content from social media, you can help by exploring and sharing content from independent internet sources that cover LGBTQ+ news and other human rights problems in Russia. This would boost the popularity of these sources worldwide and in Russia, and make the community more visible, and spread awareness of these acts of homophobia and transphobia. The few that provide information in English are Mediazona, Meduza and TV Rain, all available with the links provided. International support will help the Russian queer community to feel more seen and safe to protest. 

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