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Russia to Gays: Shut Up and Disappear

With anti-LGBT law, Putin wants to distract from Ukraine.
December 5, 2022
Russia to Gays: Shut Up and Disappear
People wave gay rights' movement rainbow flags during the gay pride rally in Saint Petersburg, on Agust 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

As Russia continues to flounder in Ukraine, with attempts to capture the small town of Bakhmut turning into a grisly reenactment of the Battle of Verdun, and Kremlin propagandists lurching back and forth between hysterical swagger and the five stages of grief, the Russian political establishment has decided to tackle what’s really important: a national “Don’t Say Gay” law. A bill that outlaws “LGBT propaganda”—defined so broadly as to cover not only gay or transgender rights advocacy but potentially all public expressions of “nontraditional” sexuality or gender identity—passed the State Duma on November 24 and was approved by the upper house of Russia’s fake legislature, the Council of Federations, last Wednesday. There’s not much suspense as to whether Vladimir Putin will sign it.

The legislation, which was passed unanimously, prohibits all public speech or actions deemed to be “directed at promoting nontraditional sexual norms,” to propagandize the “attractiveness” of same-sex relationships or gender transition, or to encourage “distorted notions of the social equivalency of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations.” (Think of it as the Really Don’t Say Gay Law.) The ban covers all media, from internet sites to journalism to literature, arts and entertainment including video games. While there are no criminal penalties, violators will pay steep fines: 50,000 to 400,000 rubles for individuals (in a country where the average monthly wage is between 50,000 and 60,000 rubles); 100,000 to 800,000 rubles for public officeholders; and 800,000 to 5 million rubles for companies, which can also be shut down for up to 90 days. Foreign lawbreakers can be not only deported but held in detention for up to 15 days. Films and television shows will be barred from release if found to have prohibited LGBT content, and Russia’s powerful federal communications supervision agency, the Roskomnadzor, will be empowered to block “LGBT propaganda” websites without a court order.

This law doesn’t quite return Russia to Soviet days when “sexual relations between men” were a criminal offense punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. (While the law was haphazardly enforced, it netted at least 38,000 convictions from 1946 to 1991, though that figure includes convictions not only for consensual sex but for male rape under the second part of the statute; the records do not distinguish between the two. A few women were prosecuted as well, though Soviet forensics textbooks generally treated lesbianism as a psychiatric rather than criminal matter.) But it does recall Soviet-era censorship under which any mention of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was scrubbed from books and films about the great composer’s life, while biographical prefaces to Soviet editions of Oscar Wilde cloaked the reason for his imprisonment in such euphemisms as “transgressions against morality.” Occasionally, foreign books with gay characters, such as Iris Murdoch’s 1973 novel The Black Prince, slipped past the censor’s vigilant eye. But there could have been no question, for instance, of publishing James Baldwin’s gay-themed masterpiece Giovanni’s Room, even though Baldwin was acclaimed in the official Soviet media as a fighter against American racism; the novel had to wait until 2007 for its first Russian edition. Whether the new Russian law will allow new editions of Giovanni’s Room, its online promotion, or its display in bookstores and libraries is difficult to say: The legislation is very vague, which will give enforcers wide latitude to apply it as they see fit.

This is not the first time Putin-era Russian legislation has gone after “gay propaganda”: A more limited 2013 law added “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to a broader law that banned the distribution of “harmful” material to minors. In practice, this often meant restrictions on any material that could be viewed by minors, even if it was not specifically directed at them. The new law drops the “for the children” pretext entirely (though it does have clauses increasing penalties for the distribution of prohibited material to minors). Notably, while rhetoric surrounding the 2013 legislation included some jabs at the decadent West, its ostensible rationale was the encouragement of heterosexuality in order to ensure higher birth rates. By contrast, the discourse around the 2022 update focused heavily on Russia’s holy war against the Satanic West and, more specifically, the war in Ukraine. According to the principal architect of the new law, Duma member Aleksandr Khinshtein:

The special military operation is taking place not only on the battlefield, but also in people’s minds and souls. Today, in fact, we are fighting to ensure that Russia, as the president puts it, does not have “parent number one, parent number two, and parent number three” instead of Mom and Dad. It is obvious that our confrontation with the West is largely civilizational in nature. That’s because Russia is an outpost for the protection and preservation of traditional values in opposition to the new pseudo-values imposed by the West, first and foremost being the normalization of sexual deviancy.

(Putin had notoriously assailed “parent number one, number two, parent number three” in his September 30 speech on the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, explaining Russia’s war as a crusade against the “dictatorship of the Western elites” which, he asserted, were openly embracing “Satanism.”)

Meanwhile, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin dubbed the legislation the “Answer to Blinken” law—that is, to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had criticized the proposed ban as a blow to freedom of expression and civil rights.

After the legislation was passed by the Duma, Andrei Tsyganov, editor-in-chief of the “patriotic” website Katyusha and chair of the expert council of the Public Commissioner on the Protection of the Family, celebrated it as a “ban on the propaganda of American-European values” and gloated that “the pederasts who stand at the head of Global Sodom are going to burst with rage.” Tsyganov lamented the fact that the law wasn’t harsh enough—he had advocated making “LGBT propaganda” a felony—but concluded that, whatever its practical deficiencies, it was important primarily in a “political sense,” as a declaration of defiance toward “the so-called ‘developed world,’ actually the ‘global elite’ that has fallen into outright Satanism and dehumanization.”

What this law will mean in practice is the de facto banishment of LGBT speech and expression from all public spaces in Russia. Some LGBT support groups, such as the Acceptance Center in Kazan, which opened in 2019, are already suspending all activities, both online and in real space. Almost inevitably, Russia’s already beleaguered LGBT community will face more abuse and harassment not only from the government but from right-wing vigilantes whose tactics include public shaming and violent attacks.

Meanwhile, publishers, booksellers, and filmmakers are nervously wondering what kind of content will be affected by the new prohibitions. The Duma voted down an amendment that would have exempted “universally recognized cultural products” such as literature and art from the ban; in theory, this means, for example, that Russian translations of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, whose principal narrator Charles Kinbote is conspicuously gay, could fall under the ax. The same could apply to the great twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s cycle of poems The Friend, dedicated to the openly lesbian poet Sofia Parnok and filled with understated but unmistakable romantic themes. Some have even wondered if films that feature cross-dressing, from Tootsie to the Soviet-era classic Hello, I’m Your Aunt! (based on the 1892 British farce Charley’s Aunt), could be affected by the ban. Just last month, the premiere of a play called The Princess and the Ogre at a children’s theater in Novosibirsk was canceled—or at least delayed, since it will apparently open this month after vetting by the Ministry of Culture—because of an anonymous complaint from someone who found it too gay. That’s because the “princess” and the “ogre” are both mustachioed male poets improvising a play within the play.

Many Russian commentators, such as journalist and activist Renat Davletgildeyev, believe the new law is a transparent attempt by the Putin regime to shore up flagging support among the Russian public by appealing to homophobia, casting gays as the menacing “other,” and demonizing not only the West but Russian antiwar liberals as “sexual deviants.” It also serves as a convenient distraction from failures in Ukraine and mobilization horror stories (Look, at least we’re scoring victories over the perverts and making Global Sodom cry!). A report by journalist Sasha Belaya on the Khodorkovsky Live YouTube channel noted that the Duma’s discussion and passage of the legislation had been accompanied by an anti-gay campaign in the Russian state media that explicitly targeted liberals and dissidents.

In October, when Mikhail Zygar—a writer and the former editor-in-chief of the now-banned cable channel TV-Rain Mikhail Zygar, and one of the many Russian media personalities who left the country after the invasion of Ukraine—announced his marriage in Lisbon to actor and fellow expatriate Jean-Michel Shcherbak, Russian propagandists had a field day. TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, of “Russia can turn the U.S. into radioactive ash” fame, gleefully touted the Zygar marriage to show that the émigré dissidents “look even more pathetic than they did in Russia” now that they were “showing their true colors” in the West. Fellow TV host Vladimir Solovyov delivered his commentary on “this filth, this abomination, this foulness, and nastiness” in a bizarre singsong apparently intended to mimic “gay” mannerisms. In a particularly ironic twist, some propagandists such as Olga Skabeyeva expressed concern that the ban on “LGBT propaganda” could accidentally bring the hammer down on homophobic propaganda, because it was unclear what kind of depictions of “nontraditional sexual relations” were prohibited: Could her own show be slapped with a fine for showing the Zygar/Shcherbak kiss, albeit “with undisguised revulsion,” as an exposé of “the liberal public” and of “the West and its values”?

The gay-bashing for domestic consumption could achieve at least some desire effect in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population believes that consensual same-sex relations between adults should be illegal and half say they feel personal hostility toward LGBT people. But it is quite likely that the current Russian anti-gay campaign, including the anti–“LGBT propaganda” law, is intended at least in part for a Western audience—a specific part of it, that is.

The Russian political elites are well aware that an influential segment of the right and some of its key figures—from Steven Bannon to Jordan Peterson—are sympathetic to the Putin/Khinshtein/Tsyganov presentation of Russia as an outpost of goodness and godliness standing against the globalist, morally decadent, sexually deviant West. There is little doubt that Putin and his entourage count on these “influencers,” and on the politicians who listen to them, to undermine Western military and political support for Ukraine and thus shore up Russia’s position. What better way to impress them than a sweeping ban on “LGBT propaganda” in defiance of Satanic liberalism?

Will this gambit succeed as far as actually sabotaging Western aid to Ukraine? Almost certainly not. Will it impress some North American conservatives, especially those who are openly abandoning the ideal of individual liberty, and reinforce their view of Putin as a fighter for traditional values? It probably will. It is perhaps worth noting that the news report about Russia’s “LGBT propaganda” ban published by the U.S. conservative site the Daily Wire, an article ostensibly neutral in tone, ran under a headline stressing that the ban included propaganda of pedophilia.

I look forward to these conservatives’ thoughts on free speech and “cancel culture.”

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.