The Chilling Effects of Russia’s Anti-Gay Law, One Year Later

Gay rights activists release balloons as they take part in a flash mob on World Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 17, 2014.

Photo by Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW—Sitting in the food court of a Moscow shopping mall, Konstantin Yablotsky reflected on the effects of the Russian government’s hostility to what it calls “gay propaganda” over the past year.

“People have become more closed, more depressed, less out than they were,” he said. “The law makes our activity more difficult, because we never know when the red button will be pressed.”

Russia’s law prohibiting “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships,” better known as the “gay propaganda law,” was passed last summer. Ostensibly focused on “protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values,” it was vague and general enough that no one seemed exactly sure what “gay propaganda” was, or how strictly the regulations would be enforced. A year later, Russia’s LGBT activists are starting to get a better idea.

There have been a number of cases of the law being directly enforced. Activists in Askhangelsk, in northwestern Russia, and Kazan, in the central republic of Tartarstan, have been fined for holding signs at gay rights rallies. A newspaper in the far eastern Khabarovsk region was fined for publishing an interview with a teacher who said he was fired for being gay. The manufacturer of a children’s game that included portrayals of same-sex relationships was fined. And authorities have opened an investigation into a series of children’s books by acclaimed novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya because, prosecutors claim, they promote tolerance of gay relationships.

But the activists I spoke with said the chilling effect of the law was more pernicious than the prosecutions it has spawned. Now, venues refuse to book LGBT events for fear of running afoul of the law or because they seem to present a security risk. (A September gay rights event in St. Petersburg came under attack by anti-gay activists who doused participants in liquid and sickening gas.)

Yablotsky is the head of Russia’s LGBT Sport Federation and one of the main organizers of the Open Games, an athletic competition for LGBT athletes that was held shortly after the Sochi Olympics. The Open Games faced an uphill battle when a number of the venues it had booked canceled their reservations at the last minute. Then police ordered venues to be evacuated supposedly after receiving reports of terrorist threats. “All of our venues, sports venues, eating venues, hostels, canceled on us,” he says. The federation, which has been active since 2010 and has organized more than 20 events, has lately had better luck working with small, privately owned venues.

Andrei Obolensky, chairman of the LGBT rights group Rainbow Association, told me: “We used to do a lot of film screenings as a form of education, but now we can’t show a film unless it gets a certificate from the state confirming that it can be publicly shown. A lot of smaller places that could show films will not allow it in their facilities anymore.” He continued, “Police will attend some our events to check passports.” The event could be shut down if underage attendees were present. Local authorities will also “refuse permits for any kind of rally or to register any organization.”

Obolensky also said that even liberal opposition groups are sometimes reluctant to associate themselves with the gay rights cause and that “many Russian journalists don’t like to cover LGBT questions. They fear being punished by this homophobic law.” He also noted that the movement has been hurt by an increasing number of activists choosing to emigrate.

There are regional differences as well. Gay rights groups in St. Petersburg and the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk are more established and have been permitted more latitude than those in Moscow, for instance. But overall, Obolensky says, the situation facing activists is “the same as in the rest of society. The area for acceptable discussion is getting smaller and smaller every day.”

There have been several documented cases of openly gay teachers being fired for taking part in activism, with Alexander Ermoshkin, a geography teacher from Khabarovsk who was fired after participating in a gay rights flash mob, being the best publicized.

LGBT sports federation head Yablotsky, who teaches chemistry at a Moscow high school for students with disabilities, says he was asked to resign after what he assumes was a “command from upstairs,” but for now he’s staying put. He says he doesn’t hide his sexuality, but there are limits. “If I were to walk along the corridors of my school holding hands with my husband, that would be considered a promotion of non-traditional family values,” he said. “I won’t be fired because I’m out and gay and promoting non-traditional family values at school. Then there would be a court case. All the authorities like to say at international high-level meetings that there is no discrimination in Russia. So it would be on disciplinary stuff: if I forget my lesson plan or I’m five minutes late to class.”

Lena Klimova, the founder of Children-404, an online support group for gay teens, says the law’s effect on young people has been palpable. “Teenagers say their situation has gotten worse,” she wrote to me from Nizhny Tagil in Central Russia, where she lives. “They feel like outcasts, and now the law confirms that.”

Klimova, who was charged and brought to court under the “gay propaganda” law but was ultimately found not guilty, feels there’s a direct link between the political climate and a rise in hate crimes, including a rash of cases involving far-right groups using social media to lure gay teenagers so they can physically assault them. “People have grown very angry, and now even the mere word ‘gay’ is taken as propaganda,” she says.

The paranoia can reach almost comical proportions at times, particularly when it comes to a peculiar obsession with rainbows. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a region in Russia’s far east, asked the Kremlin to confirm that its rainbow-patterned flag did not constitute gay propaganda. Elsewhere, a Russian priest denounced the colorful cleats worn by Russia’s World Cup soccer team as a “homosexual abomination.”

Russia’s persecution of its gay citizens was a major international news story and a galvanizing issue for the international gay rights movement after the law’s passage and particularly in the run up to and during the Sochi Olympics. Recently, it’s slipped out of the headlines as attention has shifted to the crisis in Ukraine. Klimova said that while gay Russians were grateful for the international support, ultimately “foreign activists cannot influence out government. It should not be their task.”

Yablotsky said foreign attention can sometimes even backfire. He says that during the Sochi Olympics he gave dozens of interviews with foreign outlets in which he stated that the Open Games were an attempt to “have peaceful contact and dialogue with the authorities. We are not a protesting organization. We are not part of any political regime. We’re just promoting a healthy lifestyle among LGBT people and empowering the community.” But, he says, it was often reported that the games were an attempt to “protest” Putin’s regime. “After that, what do you expect the authorities to do?” he asked.

But the Rainbow Federation’s Obolensky says Russian LGBT groups need all the help they can get. “During the time of Harvey Milk, when the LGBT movement was starting in the U.S., no one supported them. Now, at least we have allies in Europe and America who have gone this route before us. We really appreciate having allies elsewhere.”

Joshua Keating is currently reporting in Russia thanks to a grant from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins.