By Dan Healey
Last week Russia’s most ‘liberal’ metropolis, St Petersburg, passed on first reading a repugnant law that will remind an older generation of British gays and lesbians of Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic ‘Section 28’. The Conservative prime minister’s 1988 law banned local councils from ‘promoting homosexuality… as a pretended family relationship’. The law chilled discussion of same-sex love and relationships in British schools for a generation, and contributed to the Tories’ reputation as the ‘nasty party’. It was rescinded by Tony Blair’s New Labour only in 2003.
On the initiative of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party, last Monday (21 November) St Petersburg’s legislative assembly considered making ‘propaganda for sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, transgenderism, among minors’ an administrative offense liable to fines. (Subsequently they deferred full adoption of the law, citing the need for ‘juridical adjustments’.) United Russia’s deputies say they have received ‘hundreds’ of complaints from Petersburg residents about such propaganda. They also argue that ‘sexual perversion has a demoralizing effect especially on minors’ and that Russia’s commitment to the human rights of the child compels them act.
Russia, like many post-Communist countries, is in the grip of a cultural war over the status of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. For most of the past century silence and police repression reigned: Joseph Stalin banned male homosexuality in 1934 and only after the fall of Communism, in 1993, did Russian president Boris Yeltsin decriminalize men’s same-sex relations. Russian society scarcely discussed this reform and public discourse since 1993 has been marked with violent outbursts of homophobia.
Events of the past decade led me to think that the Kremlin was happy to avoid wading into the cultural war about homosexuality. It allowed some of its more colourful outriders test the waters rather than speak up on the question itself. A chaotic and carnivalesque discussion in 2002 in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, about recriminalizing ‘sodomy’ and making ‘lesbianism’ a crime for the first time in national history, ended in disorderly defeat for conservative-nationalists, urged on by the graphomanic sexologist Dilia Yenikeeva. In her puerile and amazingly prolific sex manuals Yenikeeva argues that ‘inborn’ homosexuals prey on healthy young men and women to increase their numbers, and she insinuates that Russia’s rare liberal politicians are not entirely devoted to ‘traditional sex’. Since the 2002 rout, a small core of conservatives and religious Duma deputies have repeatedly proposed a national ban on ‘propaganda for homosexuality’ to no discernible effect.
However, gay visibility has not been welcomed by Russia’s local authorities. Since 2006, a group of LGBT activists have tried to hold a gay pride parade in the capital Moscow every year in May; they have always been refused a permit to march, even in 2009 when they timed their event to coincide with Moscow’s hosting of the Eurovision song contest, so beloved of Europe’s camper music fans. In 2010 the European Court ruled against the city, in favour of the right of LGBT marchers to public self-expression. More recently events in St Petersburg resulted in similar responses: last summer’s attempt by LGBT citizens to demonstrate was met with arrests, even though demonstrators adopted a form of protest delightfully appropriate to the city. They covered a cruise-boat with a huge rainbow flag and sailed up the Neva River. Later however their landside meeting was broken up by police.
The proposed ban on ‘propaganda’ for dissenting sexualities and genders in St Petersburg is a singular and worrying development. Until now, such bans have been passed only in distant provincial centres – Arkhangelsk and Riazan – places with little or no visible LGBT presence. Petersburg is home to one of Russia’s few officially registered and recognized LGBT organizations, the ‘Coming Out’ counselling and information centre. ‘Coming Out’ did not organize last summer’s pride demonstration and its young and idealistic leaders consider such actions unsuited to Russian conditions. They did however come out the streets this week in front of City Hall to protest the United Russia ban on ‘propaganda’ for homosexuality. ‘Coming Out’s’ educational and outreach work would be made much more difficult under the proposed regulations: how would ‘Coming Out’ restrict access to its phoneline to adults, and should it? How would it confine its anti-homophobic brochures and websites to adult readers only?
The city of Moscow, with a council dominated by United Russia, is now actively considering adopting the Petersburg ‘propaganda’ proposal. Duma elections are looming in December, and there will be a presidential election in March 2012. The Kremlin is aware that support for United Russia and its leadership is softening, and like Margaret Thatcher in 1988, it is looking for diversions to distract a discontented public. Using a cautious strategy of coordinated moves at the municipal level, Putin’s party has entered the national conversation about the status of LGBT citizenship in Russia. It looks poised to stir up a fresh outburst of political homophobia, and Russia’s few public LGBT activists will suffer a baptism of fire.