Now you see it, now you don’t

Did you know the Communists want to ban expressions of homosexuality?

Oh, they’re not in power, and this isn’t a historical post—this was a law proposed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in October 2015. They’re a minority party, and aren’t even particularly communist for that matter.

In 2013-2014, English-language newsmedia offered massive (for Russia-centric news) coverage of Russia’s proposed-then-passed ban on gay propaganda. (Technically the law targeted “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations among minors,” thus had a particular effect on outreach to LGBT youth such as the Deti-404 program.)

Where’d it go?

This is not to say that Western coverage necessarily helps the cause in Russia. A significant theme of my dissertation research was in fact the opposite dynamic, insofar as gay rights have been associated with “the West” in post-Soviet Russia and so have become entangled in the anti-Westernism that now comprises a large portion of pro-Kremlin messaging.

And Western coverage likewise tended to imply that anti-gay laws were somehow the antithesis of Western values, a sign of cultural backwardness wherever they pop up (Uganda gets this treatment, too,  with the added stereotyping associated with reporting on “traditional African culture.”) These frames not only ignore the ways that anti-Westernism is a dynamic product of contemporary global exchanges, not a relic of culture before civilizing Western contact. There would be no law against “gay propaganda” without the steady march of queer visibility and expansion of gay rights in the US and EU.

Yet the turning of a blind eye does not reflect well on us, I think. How many politicians and celebrities professed to care in the run-up to Sochi, just a few seasons ago? How many news outlets got thousands of clicks for the feel-good stories they posted in support of LGBT rights?

The latest ban

Anyway, here’s a few words about the latest defense of heterosexual public space in Russia.

Izvestia reported on October 23, 2015 that Ivan Nikitchuk and Nikolai Arefev, both of the CPRF, proposed creating penalties for “public expression of a non-traditional sexual orientation,” 15 days in jail or a fine of 4,000-5,000 rubles (currently around $50-64, though the exchange rate has been quite variable lately). Izvestia reported this as creating a penalty for “coming out” (kaming-aut in Russian, essentially adopted from English), but one can imagine how “public expression” might be interpreted in practice.

(Indeed, the law rather calls to mind numerous Americans I’ve heard say things like, “I don’t have any problem with homosexuality, but do they have to throw it in my face?” in response to provocations like seeing two apparently same-gender people hold hands or kiss on the street.)

Ivan Nikitchuk:

I believe that the problem we are raising is acute and pressing, insofar as it deals with social diseases of our society and in the first place concerns the moral upbringing of the growing generation… Unfortunately, the mechanism taken in 2013… which forbids propaganda of homosexualism, appears to be insufficiently effective, and for that reason we are proposing a new measure.

Further reading: interview with Nikitchuk.

There is some disagreement about the need for this new measure. Vitalii Milonov, the Saint Petersburg politician who was instrumental in pushing the 2013 ban, told Izvestia that the older law is sufficient in this age of mass media:

…any public figure, giving any statement in public space, informs an unlimited number of individuals, among whom might be minors.

So far, the party of power seems to agree; RBK reports today that the proposal will be blocked in committee. But be careful—it’s not exactly because they thought it was a bad idea to fine people for coming out.

Dmitrii Vyatkin, member of United Russia, explained:

I am absolutely sure, and here there can be no question, that the position of the committee on this law will be opposition… This is connected not with the fact that someone in the Duma is protecting something, but above all with the fact that in and of itself from a legal point of view the proposal is formulated in an absolutely illiterate manner.

There are some further accusations that the CPRF is just in it for cynically populist reasons. (Some may think about pots and kettles at such moments.)

There’s an interesting moment here, one that bears a colder take, about what counts as “public expression,” the felt hypervisiblity of non-hetero sexualities, and so on. I am thinking about the ways in which it is normal for young women friends to hold hands in Russia, while such a thing after puberty is read as romantic expression in the US. I am thinking about the fact that anti-LGBT groups promoted a petition against this proposal on the grounds that it might outlaw their demonstrations.

No conclusion for the moment. Just trying to do a little documenting as things keep moving along.