The Russian parliament has unanimously passed a harsh new anti-gay law that criminalises LGBT freedom of expression, under the guise of suppressing the spread of 'propaganda' to minors in support of "non-traditional sexual relations". It is one of the most draconian laws against LGBT freedom of expression anywhere in the world and a further reversal of the liberalisation of the early 1990s, when homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia. Not since the days of Stalin have LGBT Russians experienced such repressive legal measures. Although the legislation is ostensibly aimed at prohibiting the dissemination of so-called 'gay propaganda' to young persons under 18, in reality it will criminalise any public advocacy of LGBT equality or expression of same-sex affection where a young person could potentially see or hear it. LGBT organisations, meetings, festivals, marches, posters, newspapers, books, films, counselling and safer sex education are likely to face criminal prosecution. The same risk of criminalisation will apply to same-sex couples who publicly identify and affirm themselves or who express affection in public. Any suggestion that homosexuality is just as valid as heterosexuality will incur the danger of a police knock on the door. The Duma vote, 436-0, imposes severe penalties for infringements, including huge fines, by Russian standards, on individuals, organisations, media and foreigners. Individuals will face fines of up to £2,000 and organisations and media may be liable to fines close to £10,000 plus closure for up to 90 days. In an apparent move to deter support from foreign LGBT activists, such as myself, non-Russian violators will face 15 days jail and £2,000 fines, followed by deportation. President Vladimir Putin seems hell-bent on forcing LGBT people back into the closet and locking the door. He wants homosexuality to once again be the love that dares not speak its name.
The new law is effectively a blanket censorship of any public expression of same-sex love or LGBT human rights. It could result in the purging of books, films and plays with LGBT characters and story-lines from libraries, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including many classic works of art and literature. LGBT visibility and pro-gay posts on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, will also be an offence if there is a possibility that a person under 18 could access and see them. There is a fear that people may be liable to arrest and prosecution if they mention the homosexuality or bisexuality of great Russian icons such as the composers Peter Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky, film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, the novelist Nikolai Gogol and dancers Nijinski, Sergei Diaghilev and Rudolf Nureyev. Under the new law it will be risky for Russian people to publicly acknowledge and affirm the "non-traditional sexual relations" of some of the greatest Russians in history. Russian LGBT campaigners - and their straight human rights allies - did not allow the law to pass without protest. They rallied peacefully and defiantly outside the Duma as the vote took place. Far right extremists responded by violently assaulting them, with Moscow police collusion. The LGBT activists stood their ground; showing amazing, inspirational courage in the face of repeated brutality. I know about such things; having been bashed and arrested for participating in successive Moscow Gay Pride parades, from 2006 to 2011 - my worst assault being in 2007 when I was beaten almost unconscious and was left with minor brain and eye injuries.
The new homophobic law is not just about the LGBT community and its rights. It is symptomatic of President Putin's increasing authoritarianism and his wider crackdown on civil society. His autocratic Czarist pretentions and methods have become more evident with every passing year in office.
Shortly after voting through the Section 28-like legislation, the Duma also approved a new statute criminalising anyone who causes offence to "religious feelings." This carries a maximum jail sentence of three years and is the hardliners response to the church protests of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.
Despite its popularity with parliamentarians, the new anti-gay law clearly violates the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, and the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia has signed and pledged to uphold.
Will the Council of Europe do anything to punish Russia's defiance? Unlikely. The Putin regime has been previously found guilty of violating LGBT human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. It ignored the ruling and the Council of Europe did nothing; sending a signal that member states can breach the Convention with impunity.
In the short term, the omens are not good for any reversal of this latest homophobic crackdown. Anti-gay prejudices and fears have been deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche by the twin historical influences of Stalinist communism and the Orthodox church; plus the modern neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist movements whose xenophobic, chauvinist, macho politics has no place for queers. "Moscow is not Sodom" they chant, as they bash LGBT campaigners.
It seems that LGBT people, and the supposed social threat they pose, are a convenient scapegoat to distract the Russian public from corruption, repression, economic injustice and dysfunctional public services. It's a familiar tactic exploited by past tyrants and now by would-be Czar, Valdimir Putin.
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