Milene Larsson, a contributor to Vice and host of the recent Young and Gay in Putin's Russia documentary, answers readers’ questions about homosexuality in Russia, how young Russians feel, and why it has become such a big international issue.
As a visitor, what was your sense of the mood about the issue in Russia among average Russians? Are they really behind some of the recent legislation?
I came to Moscow expecting that the law against promotion of non-traditional relationships towards minors – also known as the anti-gay “propaganda” law – would be met with resistance amongst the general population, maybe because my Russian friends are open-minded and tolerant.
However, already on the second night, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was at a birthday party for a Russian Newsweek correspondent and got into a long and tiring argument with a Russian blogger and yoga teacher who, at first, seemed like a clever and reasonable guy, but when he found out I was there to report on the homophobic law, his attitude shocked me. He was an avid supporter of the law because he didn’t want his children to become perverted by homosexuals. He was convinced they were all pedophiles, and he even showed me articles published on American Christian websites showing graphs “proving” that gay men molest children.
I tried to explain that homosexuality and pedophilia are absolutely unrelated and that these Christian sites are not reliable sources, and that the stats were not official and most likely made up. But he wouldn’t listen. He then went on to explaining that homosexuality is dangerous because young children can be influenced into it and that it’s a disease that can and must be cured.
I was stunned. Again, I tried to explain that homosexuality is a sexual orientation that you are born with and that it’s absolutely normal and common everywhere. Again, there was no willingness from his side to take in anything I was saying.
Throughout my stay, I was met with similar attitudes over and over again. There’s an example in the film where a man who looks like your average working dad calmly explains the importance of preserving conservative traditional values so that Russia doesn’t turn into Europe where he said, “they're legalizing pedophilia. They're legalizing zoophilia. They have zoo brothels.”
What worried me even more was the attitude amongst young people, whose replies to my questions about their view of homosexuality were bordering on aggressive. There is no education in schools about what homosexuality, is so the ignorance surrounding it isn’t surprising. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 79 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, and as you can imagine, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t condone homosexuality.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox values became the cornerstone of the new Russian identity, replacing the communist mindset. The LGBT activists’ theory is that Putin’s reason for passing the anti-gay “propaganda” law was to sway the Orthodox majority in order to extend his voter base. Unfortunately, when an attitude like homophobia becomes law, it further mobilizes people against the gay community, which has led to a spike in hate crimes. To curb the negative effects of the Kremlin’s tactics against the LGBT community, something drastic needs to happen to make Russian society more tolerant towards homosexuality. Unfortunately, the anti-gay propaganda law is making any such move illegal.
You got to talk to young gay Russians who had seen or experienced discrimination firsthand. Did they seem apprehensive about talking to the media about this issue?
The young gay Russians I spoke to were activists and already out in the open with their sexual orientation. They weren’t apprehensive; on the contrary, they were eager to raise awareness about the situation in Russia for young homosexuals. Young gay Russians are the most affected by the homophobic law, which forbids parents, teachers and even psychologists to tell young homosexuals that being gay is OK. According to the activists we met, there has been a rise in suicides amongst young members of the LGBT community since the anti-gay propaganda law was passed. They are also worried about their safety on the streets, as they told me more violence is directed towards them. Some LGBT activists organize LGBT self-defense classes. Others, like Nikita, a 17-year-old LGBT activist, use the internet to discuss LGBT issues and advise young homosexuals on how to protect themselves online, particularly against vigilante groups like the neo-Nazi Occupy Pedofilyaj that finds homosexuals on social media, tricks them to meet up, and then uploads YouTube clips of how they abuse them, sometimes to death.
Did you feel any tension or even danger reporting on this issue so directly while you were there?
Reporting on politically sensitive topics in Russia is a scary experience. It was a risky film to make, because the activists we spent time with were likely monitored by the secret services, FSB (the former KGB), and while we were there, four Dutch filmmakers were reportedly arrested for doing the same type of project we were doing.
I also found myself face-to-face with violent people who see it as their moral and religious duty to go as far as attacking homosexuals. For example, after the funeral of one of the LGBT activists we feature in the film, Alexei Davydov, his friends held a minute of silence in his honor during a protest in central Moscow. When the gay haters found out about it, they showed up in masses – everyone from skinheads to old ladies holding up their Orthodox crosses. There were about 50 haters and only about eight LGBT activists. The tension in the air was terrifying. The homophobes, who had come to attack them, would literally have torn them apart had it not been for the police presence.
I asked one of the LGBT activists, a girl called Ray, if she felt scared or worried for her safety. She gave me that sort of fearless, martyr-like look you only see in people who no longer have anything to lose, and answered, “I’m not afraid of them. What can they do? Beat me up? Shout threats at me? You know, people fearing them is how they get powerful. We cannot be afraid, because we cannot let them win.” Sadly, in today’s Russia, people like Ray are in the minority. The gay community is relatively big, but the majority live in the closet. Maybe because they feel it’s a hopeless situation because of the widespread homophobia and overwhelming lack of education when it comes to homosexuality.
What’s your understanding of how the status of gay people has evolved in Russia? Has it improved since Soviet times, or are things deteriorating?
The situation for homosexuals has improved since Soviet times, when homosexuality was illegal and could land you a hefty jail sentence. It became legal to be gay in 1993 but, especially since the re-introduction of state-sanctioned homophobia in the guise of the federal anti-gay “propaganda” law, the attitude against homosexuality is worsening, and influential people are suggesting that Putin should reinstate the Soviet-era ban on homosexuality. It’s a backlash for gay rights activists to see their country going backwards rather than becoming more tolerant. As Putin likes to point out, Russia is not the worst place in the world to be gay and, unlike the United States, in which about 10 states still have anti-sodomy laws on their books, Russia so far only bans “propaganda” of homosexuality, which is comparable to Britain’s Thatcher-era “Section 28” law that wasn’t abolished until 2003.
However, aside from warping public opinion and ostracizing the gay community, the vague anti-gay “propaganda” law could easily be interpreted as outlawing public displays of homosexuality in all forms. In a way, this law has a similar effect to the Soviet-era law that completely banned homosexuality, as both laws force the LGBT community to lead a life of secrecy and shame.
Gay activists are not the only ones who have faced restrictions on freedom of expression. Why have gay rights specifically captured such international attention?
I think the main reason why it’s making international headlines is because of the Sochi Olympics and the international calls to boycott the games in the name of gay rights. Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law is also a newsworthy topic because the persecution of the LGBT community is one of many examples of how Putin is waging a moral war against anyone who doesn’t conform with Russia’s nationalist, Orthodox family-orientated values. Putin has been tightening the screws on civil society since he first came to power, and increasingly so since his ego was rocked by the anti-Putin protests following the 2011 election. There is less and less tolerance against dissent in Russia, and everything points to the situation worsening, since Putin is so concerned about criticism that he even saw it necessary to shut down the already biased state media agency Ria Novosti to replace it with a full blown propaganda machinery, top-led by Dmitry Kiselyov, who is known as a homophobe.