On June 30, Russian President Vladamir Putin signed a law that outlaws distributing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” anywhere children could hear it. The law, meant to crack down on gay rights activism, essentially makes it illegal to teach young people about homosexuality. In fact, anyone caught providing information on homosexuality to children could be fined heavily and foreigners who are caught violating this can be jailed for 15 days, fined the equivalent of $3,000, and then deported. The law also makes gay pride parades and events illegal and imposes fines against people expressing such “propaganda” online or in the news media.
The new law has rightly called attention to the widespread discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in Russia. And as the international community reacts—by dumping vodka and threatening to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi—it’s worth noting that some U.S. states have similar language on the books.
LGBTQ Rights (or Lack Thereof) in Russia
The gay rights movement in Russia has been described as being in its infancy, and public opinion about homosexuality in the country remains poor. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about three-quarters (74 percent) of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Overall, 16 percent of Russians said they believe homosexuality is acceptable, but acceptance is slightly lower (12 percent) among Russians over age 50 and slightly higher (21 percent) among those 18 to 29. Another survey by the Levada-Center found that 85 percent of Russians disapprove of gay marriage, 34 percent think homosexuality is a disease, and 5 percent think gays should be “eradicated.”
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Given these attitudes, it is not surprising that gay individuals in Russia face violence that often goes unreported. In May, as the parliament was discussing the anti-propaganda law that eventually passed, the murder of a young gay man in Volgrograd made headlines. The attack was particularly brutal; the 23-year-old was beaten, sodomized with a beer bottle, set on fire, and finally killed by being hit in the head with a heavy stone. In a rare move, the investigators admitted that the motive for the murder was the man’s sexual orientation.
Gay rights activists in the country blame Putin’s recent attempts to court conservative members of his country with talk of “family values” and win favor with the Orthodox Church, which is being asked to play a more public role as a “moral authority” in the country. The leader of the church has suggested that homosexuality is one of the main threats to Russia.
Activist Nikolai Alexeyev told Reuters that the anti-propaganda legislation was “a call to action for the scum who committed this crime” and added, “[I]t essentially gives these people carte blanche to commit such crimes.” Alexeyev says that reported crimes against homosexuals in Russia are low but that’s because there is no concept of a “hate crime” in the country, and such motives are usually ignored by investigators. According to Reuters, an Internet poll conducted late last year surveyed about 900 LGBTQ individuals in Russia and found that 15 percent of them said they had been physically attacked at least once in the previous ten months.
Gay rights activists say they face increasing violence and shrinking police protection. In January of this year, 20 protesters holding a demonstration against the anti-propaganda law were attacked outside the Russian parliament. Men dressed in black who called themselves Russian Orthodox activists threw rotten eggs and ketchup at the protesters, called them demons and witches, and then got violent. Igor Yasin, one of the protesters, told Reuters this about his attackers: “They said they were doing God’s will, and then they broke my nose.”
Yasin says it has gotten worse since Putin returned to power: “Things were always difficult, but they only started getting dangerous about a year ago.” In an effort to protect themselves, Yasin and some of his fellow activists began their own martial arts class that meets three times a week in Moscow.
“We Don’t Discriminate”
The activists only expect things to get worse after the anti-propaganda law goes into effect. The law does not define propaganda, which leaves it dangerously open to interpretation. Could a same-sex couple kissing, snuggling, or even holding hands within view of a child be considered a violation?
Putin, however, argues that his country does not discriminate against homosexual individuals. He promises that the law will not be a danger to gays and lesbians but believes that it will help improve Russia’s declining fertility rates. The logic of this is a bit hard to follow, but presumably goes like this: Restricting propaganda will supposedly prevent gays from “recruiting” young people, which means future generations will have more heterosexual couples who are able to have children. Putin alluded to this when he said, “It is imperative to protect the rights of sexual minorities, but let’s agree that same-sex marriage does not produce children.”
The fear of “recruitment” also came out when the law was used against Dutch filmmakers at the end of July. The filmmakers were working on a documentary about the discrimination faced by gays and lesbians in St. Petersburg and the northwestern city of Murmansk. Working with the Netherlands’ consulate general’s office in St. Petersburg and the House of Equality, an LGBTQ support system in Murmansk, they arranged to meet people in the area who had faced discrimination and violence. A few days after the filming ended, they were taken into custody by police who said they had violated the anti-propaganda laws by interviewing a 17 year old. (They claim the interview subject was 18.) Kris Van der Veen, one of the filmmakers, describes being interrogated for hours in a cold room. He says he was asked questions such as “Do you think the Netherlands is better than Russia?” and “Did you ask anyone to become homosexual?”
Van der Veen told TIME magazine he was scared but rationalized the worst thing that could happen to him under the law was 15 days in prison. He and his colleagues went in front of a judge the next morning and, in an unexpected turn that may have been brought on by media attention and international pressure, Russian authorities simply let them go. They did, however, seize the filmmaker’s hard drive that contained much of the footage.
The Sochi Olympics
Much of the international reaction to these laws seems to be focused on the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi. Advocates from the United States and elsewhere are calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure that athletes and spectators—even those who are openly gay—will not be affected by the law. Last week, the IOC reported that it had received assurances “from the highest level of government in Russia” that those visiting the games would be exempt. The next day, however, a member of the St. Petersburg legislature seemed to suggest otherwise. Vitaly Milonov told news outlets, “If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.” He later told R-Sport, the sports newswire of the state news agency, “An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi. But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”
Not surprisingly, activists around the globe are not satisfied by this explanation. Some are calling on countries like the United States to boycott the games, are encouraging demonstrations during the games, and are calling on the IOC to ensure that the law doesn’t become a factor for athletes or audiences. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says he is planning to introduce a resolution in the Senate asking the IOC to take a stand against Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws and to get guarantee that the law will not be enforced during the games. According to the New York Times, the IOC is currently engaged in “quiet diplomacy” with high-level Russian government officials to resolve this issue. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) argues that nothing short of Putin’s written word should be sufficient.
The organization, however, also points out that the Sochi games may be a distraction from the real issue, which is the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Russia. In a statement, HRC President Chad Griffin said, “The IOC must obtain ironclad written assurance from President Putin. But more importantly, they should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics. Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”
In his July 24 column, writer and activist Dan Savage discussed the possibility of boycotting the Sochi games or staging demonstrations during them. He notes, however, that most of us are not world-class athletes nor are we planning to go to Russia to watch the games in person. In search of a more immediate action, Savage suggested that we all boycott Russian vodka “to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”
Many people have listened. Restaurants and bars across the country have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. On Monday, the United Restaurant and Tavern Owners Association of New York (URTO) responded with its own version of the Boston Tea Party in which participants dumped Russian-made vodka into the streets.
While these intentions are good, some people have noted that the actions may be misguided. As the most recognizable brand of Russian vodka, Stolichnaya has taken much of the heat. But Stoli’s connection to its home country is tenuous at best—the ingredients are Russian, but it’s distilled in Latvia and, for now, it’s distributed by the American arm of a Scottish company.
The rights to Stoli are controlled by the SPI Group, an export company based in Luxembourg that is owned by wealthy Russian businessman Yuri Shefler. SPI will also handle distribution of the liquor starting in January of next year. TIME explains that Shafer and SPI have been at odds with the Russian government for years. John Esposito, the president of SPI North America told the magazine, “[Shefler] was forced out of Russia over 10 years ago and has been in courts around the world as the Russian government has tried to get the brand back. Hurting Stoli in the U.S. is actually probably going to make the Russian government happy, given that they’ve been fighting us for the last 13 years. They’re probably going to be sitting there chuckling.”
Meanwhile, “Don’t Say Gay” and “No Homo Promo” in the United States
The news of Russia’s regressive law is made more striking by all of the progress made recently in the United States around same-sex marriage. In recent months, we’ve seen the Supreme Court strike down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, learned that the U.S. visa system will now treat all couples the same way, and watched the midnight weddings of gay and lesbian couples in Minnesota and Rhode Island (the 12th and 13th states to legalize same-sex marriage). With all this good news, it can be easy to forget that some states still have laws that are in some ways reminiscent of the one Putin just signed.
Readers may remember Tennessee’s “don’t say gay” law, which got national attention last year and was reintroduced, with even harsher provisions, in February. The “Classroom Protection Act” stated:
At grade levels pre-K through eight (pre-K-8), any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.
A second, vaguely worded provision seemed to force school workers to out any students they suspect of engaging in homosexual behavior to their parents. That measure died in a subcommittee in March, but given that it’s been introduced every year for at least seven years, it would not be shocking if we see it again.
Other states have similar laws on the books. Sometimes called “no homo promo” laws by advocates, these laws restrict what can be said about homosexuality and often require teachers to refer to it as an unacceptable lifestyle. For example, Arizona’s law states that “no district shall include in its course of study instruction which … (1) promotes a homosexual life-style … (2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style … (3) suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”
South Carolina’s law only allows discussion of homosexuality in the context of sexually transmitted diseases. And Utah’s law, which prohibits the “advocacy of homosexuality,” prevents teachers from answering spontaneous student questions on this and other topics.
In many ways, these laws have the same goals as Russia’s new anti-propaganda law—they prevent teachers from educating young people about sexual orientation. In the United States, however, the reach of these laws is limited to within schools, and often young people can find information about homosexuality elsewhere. The overall environment in the United States is also very different; for example, there is little fear that these laws will be seen as sanctioning violence. Nonetheless, they are offensive and discriminatory and send dangerous messages to all young people. And it’s worth remembering as we watch how the Russian law is enforced that similar language remains in some of our very own laws.