A word on gay rights

And the word is “propaganda.”

 Sometimes people ask me about the issue of gay rights or the situation of LGBT people in Russia. This is not an area of expertise for me (yet?!), but I thought this might be a good day to say a few words on the subject for anyone who’s curious but knows even less than I do.

Today a new law goes into effect in St. Petersburg, outlawing “homosexual propaganda” among minors. Anyone who disseminates information promoting homosexuality may be subject to a fine: 5000 rubles for an individual (about $170), 50 000 for a business (about $1,700). The law itself explains that this information is harmful to the “health and moral and spiritual development of minors” who might develop misconceptions about the equivalence of homosexual and “traditional” marital relationships. In other words, homosexuality is abnormal, and giving information about it to young people threatens their physical, moral, and spiritual health. A similar law is under consideration in the Duma (one house of the federal legislature).


A note on language: ‘propaganda’ is a bit of a tricky word. In English, it is almost exclusively used to describe statements (advertisements, reports, news stories) with a distinct and deliberate bias. When we call something “propaganda,” we usually mean that it’s not a reasoned argument intended to sway the reader’s opinion, but rather that it’s something distorted, maybe even untrue, and actually intended to hoodwink the reader. In Russian, the same word exists, but its meaning is a little more flexible. People may call something “propaganda” to dismiss it–oh, don’t listen to that propaganda coming from Group I Disagree With. But it may also be used in a more general way: information that is propagated.

So to an American ear it sounds very strange to have a law referring to “propaganda,” because for us it’s a term of judgement. We typically don’t have laws stating “The dissemination of dirty lies about homosexuality will be subject to a fine…” Here, the word is in more common use, so while the law is very clearly making a normative judgment about homosexuality (ie, that it’s harmful to society), the language itself doesn’t sound totally out of place.

That said, the belief that homosexuality is an aberration and possibly threatening to society is very common. Surveys show a very solid majority of Russians believing this. Gay activists are routinely arrested, and high-ranking public officials have no compunctions about making public statements against LGBT rights and people. Even many of the liberal-leaning people I tend to meet (given that I’m a foreigner, there’s a definite selection bias in the kinds of people who really want to talk with me) express a sort of tolerant confusion. One of my language teachers, for example, just laughed when we started talking about a lesbian couple. Which one of them would be the husband? she asked.

In short, the situation is not good for supporters of gay rights.


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