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.

Homophobia as part of traditional culture?

(I found this post from July in my ‘drafts’ folder, and don’t seem to have ever pressed [Post] on it for some reason. Oops! It’s kind of an important issue.)

One problem with recent English-language coverage of homophobia in Russia is the tendency to attribute anti-LGBT violence simply to “traditional attitudes,” which in the first place reinforces the religious-nationalists’ own claim to tradition and authentic Russian identity. “Tradition” is, of course, not a fact but an argument for legitimacy, one which is made from moment to moment. We establish certain practices or ideas or objects as part of “tradition” by saying so, more or less. The more people repeat the idea, take it up on their own, teach it to their children or place it in museums, the more that claim is successful [1]. But it never stops being a claim, and it’s always (at least potentially) up for debate. So in the first place, journalists are not obligated to pass along the claim that homophobia is part of “traditional” Russian culture.

In the second place, like any part of culture, “traditional” attitudes are not only able to change, but constantly do. The polling organization VTsIOM has been taking periodic surveys, and the results here are interesting:

Screen shot 2013-07-26 at 6.47.33 PM

How should the government and society react to non-traditional [that word again!] sexual orientation? The top line (“It should be a criminal offense, including imprisonment”) was in decline from 2005 (23%) to 2007 (19%), until it shot up to 42% support in 2013. Interestingly, in 2005 the most popular answer (34%) was “The government and society shouldn’t get involved in it, this is a personal matter for each individual.” But by 2013, only 15% of respondents thought homosexuality was a private matter.

It’s a complex issue, and clearly there’s a lot going on here. But interpreting negative attitudes toward LGBT people as an expression of Russian “tradition” doesn’t really fly.

[1] Hobsbawm and Ranger’s 1983 The Invention of Tradition is of course the classic text on this subject.

On protest without risk

This post last week by NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni didn’t get a lot of traction, but it caught my attention because it illustrates an approach to protest that is fairly widespread. 

Bruni describes a campaign/fashion line by Alexander Wang, Principle 6, which refers to Principle 6 of the Olympics charter:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,
religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic

Olympics participants/spectators are to buy clothing with a “P6” graphic as a visible reference to this principle. According to Bruni, this is a way “to get spectators and athletes in Sochi to register their opposition to outrageously repressive, regressive anti-gay laws in Russia without running afoul of one of them.” Continue reading

In the law’s shadow

You may remember that earlier this year, the Russian Parliament passed a law outlawing “homosexual propaganda.”

lgbt apartment announcement

Last week an activist sent me this photo, asking whether I might help translate it. It was originally posted (as far as I can tell) on a social networking site with the caption that it was found in the hall of an apartment building in Rostov. The text reads:

Dear residents!

According to surveillance conducted for your building in the first two quarters of 2013 in your entryway, 1 individual of a non-traditional sexual orientation (homosexual, lesbian, etc.) was found. At the present moment further investigative and operational work is being conducted with this individual.

We ask you to show special vigilance in relation to the individual suspected of homosexual propaganda.

Please note that an individual of a non-traditional sexual orientation might propagandize homosexuality not only directly, describing the advantages of a homosexual life or even offering to engage in sexual activity with you or your relatives, but also gradually, surreptitiously, carrying out the work of homosexual propaganda at home over the course of many years.

Understand that a homosexual might be dressed discreetly, might look like you, might be pleasant in social situations and a good acquaintance of yours! Don’t forget that homosexuality does not know age and even a schoolboy or an elderly person could be a propagandist of homosexuality.

Be vigilant in relations with neighbors, especially in your own or neighboring apartments, in the area by the mailboxes and in the elevator. It’s very easy to become a target of homosexual propaganda, and there’s but one short step from a common homosexualist [1] to a homosexual-propagandist who corrupts decent people.

If you suspect anyone among your neighbors of homosexual propaganda, immediately inform the Ministry of Internal Affairs at your precinct or call 2406030 and 02.

The administration

Now, a skeptical reader might question the authenticity of the letter–that is, might suspect that it was not quite what it seemed to be. Certainly many of those discussing it had the same suspicion, and my contact reposted it with the caveat that it was almost certainly fake. Maybe it is in fact the case that the management of an apartment building 1) conducted surveillance and 2) warned their residents of a homosexual propagandist, but more likely some enterprising provocateur concocted the letter on his or her own. In a way, though, the true origin of the letter, the actual motivations of its author(s), are somewhat beside the point. It has a certain effect all on its own, and it demonstrates something about the everyday workings of the “homophobic law,” as LGBT activists often call it.

Over the course of the development of the law [2], first passed in several cities in winter 2011/2012, then at the federal level in 2013, use of the phrase “propaganda of homosexuality” became increasingly widespread in media, online, and in statements by Russian politicians and officials. This is a sort of institutionalization of anti-LGBT discourse. The very phrase “homosexual propagandist” constructs a very specific idea of a gay person (a subversive political agent), and carries with it a specific understanding of homosexuality (threatening, corrupting, infectious). The fact that this language has been adopted, codified, and put into practice by institutions of the Russian state gives it a high level of legitimacy. This is one thing LGBT activists have expressed concerns about for some time now: not just that the law itself will be used to prosecute them, but that the existence of the law might encourage and legitimize other kinds of anti-LGBT actions.

This letter, then, can be seen as an effect of the law, an effect of the state itself, regardless of who produced it. Its language is derived from official, legalistic language. It draws on the threat of the surveillance state, whose existence gives a veneer of possibility to the claim that an apartment building is under watch. This is a text that could only be written in the shadow of the “homophobic law.”

[1] Гомосексуалист and гомосексуализм, used in the original, are common in cultural conservatives’ and officials’ speech about homosexuality, so they likely sound relatively normal to those communities. I chose to use the archaic-sounding “homosexualist” rather than the more neutral-in-English “homosexual” because many LGBT activists in Russia have been arguing for a change in usage (гей, ЛГБТ, гомосексуальность). Fun with language politics!

[2] This is an issue I hope to think through as I’m writing up my dissertation. The big question is, where could we say the law came from? It’s not quite so simple as a top-down order from Putin and his circle–similar laws were tested out in provincial cities and Petersburg, support gathered (grassroots? or drummed up?) among Orthodox activist groups, it was discussed at length in various mass media. It becomes difficult to say, at least without careful research, whether there was an element of public demand for this law, and if so, where exactly it originated, who got the ball rolling, so to speak.

Power in pictures

Last week, Buzzfeed published a set of photos from a St. Petersburg LGBT march that was, like most LGBT street actions right now, set upon by nationalist groups and ended in violence and arrests. I ran across it after a couple of friends (who don’t have any particular connection to Russia) posted it on Facebook. I’ve been glad to see that this area of conflict has been getting some coverage outside Russia, even reaching people who aren’t in general tuned into Russian current events. All the same, the photos and their presentation followed a very common pattern in coverage of LGBT issues in Russia.

Exhibit A:

This is what Gay Pride looks like? Continue reading

Another word on gay rights (hint: the word is still ‘propaganda’)

Earlier this year, St. Petersburg joined several other Russian cities by passing a law banning homosexual propaganda directed at minors. Since then, exactly what that means for LGBT activists–what counts as propaganda–has been unclear. Can they hand out pamphlets about famous historical figures who were gay? Are rainbow flags propaganda? What about a feminist literary journal including poetry and essays with LGBT-related content?

Not recommended for viewing by individuals under 18 years of age.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation seems to have slightly clarified the law’s reach in a case brought in connection with the propaganda law in Archangelsk:

Запрет пропаганды гомосексуализма не препятствует реализации права получать и распространять информацию общего характера нейтрального содержания о гомосексуальности, проводить публичные дебаты о социальном статусе сексуальных меньшинств (via RosBalt)
The ban on propaganda of homosexualism* does not preclude the exercise of the rights to receive and distribute information of a general character and neutral content about homosexuality, to hold public debates about the social status of sexual minorities (rough translation mine)

In other words, LGBT groups can hold public events, advocate for equal rights, wave flags and so on, according to the court. The activist quoted, Igor Kochetkov, describes his impression of what the law actually forbids:
Оказывается, это только прямые публичные призывы к несовершеннолетним вступать в гомосексуальные отношения. Случаев такого рода “пропаганды” лично я не встречал.
It turns out that [propaganda] is only direct public calls to minors to enter into homosexual relationships. Incidents of that kind of “propaganda” I, for one, have never seen.
This seems in line with the fears expressed by proponents of such laws–they seem to worry that expressions of homosexuality in the public sphere will attract young people to homosexuality. From this point of view, though, the court has clarified nothing about what ‘propaganda’ is or is not. Merely allowing a ‘gay pride’ parade to exist on the street is propagandizing homosexuality. Among those I’ve talked to who are opposed to LGBT rights, many have used the example of a parade as precisely what they’re concerned about. They often suggest it would be better to have more order in public spaces, to have some limits on what it considered acceptable for the public–and especially for children–to see (or be confronted with) when they’re out in the city or watching tv.
On this level, then, I don’t know that the court has resolved the basic conflict over who should be allowed to be visible in the public sphere. One person’s political expression is another person’s propaganda.
*I retain “homosexualism” here rather than the more neutral “homosexuality” (гомосексуальность) because it seems to carry a similar negative, distasteful kind of tone in Russian use as in the (now kind of archaic) English term.


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).


Continue reading