Russia’s rising anti-gay hysteria

Beleaguered transgender population now faces a driving ban amid growing Kremlin-orchestrated homophobia.

Gay activists beaten by anti-gay protesters during a homosexual rights rally in St Petersburg [AP]

Moscow, Russia It was just several legal codes unfamiliar to laymen and quietly published on a government website in the middle of Russia’s Christmas holidays.

Mentioned in legislation aimed at decreasing “mortality caused by traffic accidents”, the codes – marked from F60 to F69 – were from a World Health Organisation list of “mental and behavioural disorders” that include transsexuality, transvestitism, voyeurism and fetishism.

Advocate for LGBT rights Nikolai Alexeyev stages protests and is detained on a regular basis [AFP]

As of January 6, Russians with these “disorders” – along with such conditions as “pathological” gambling, amputated limbs and rare eyesight dysfunctions – were banned from getting or renewing their driver’s licenses.

Russia’s gay and human rights activists were quick to condemn the legislation as the latest step in a Kremlin-orchestrated homophobic campaign that has engulfed Russia over the past two years, breeding violent attacks on gays, prompting their employment dismissals, and even causing suicides.

“This is absolutely empty legislation that is simply aimed at creating intolerance in society, at stigmatising sexual minorities, although it reaches no practical purposes,” Russia’s leading advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights Nikolai Alexeyev told Al Jazeera.

He said the law will fail to bar transgender and transsexual Russians from driving – simply because few have officially been listed as such.

“It will have a very limited impact because [authorities that] issue driving licenses will not be able to reject anyone who does not have an official diagnosis,” said Alexeyev, who has for years been trying to hold a gay pride parade in Moscow, and was often beaten and detained during unsanctioned gay rallies.

‘First-rate perverts’

But the legislation has been hailed by neo-conservatives, pro-Kremlin politicians, and Orthodox activists as another brick in the wall  they hope will shield Russia from same-sex marriages, sex-change operations, and other “perversions” of liberal Western societies.

“This is an absolutely right and timely decision,” Vitaly Milonov, a lawmaker from St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily. “The doctors and sexologists that oppose it are themselves first-rate perverts.”

The eccentric, 41-year-old member of the ruling United Russia party is, perhaps, Russia’s number one gay basher.

In 2011, he authored a St Petersburg law that banned “homosexual propaganda” to minors – and became a blueprint for a federal law that made it illegal nationwide to provide minors with information defined as “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism”.

Lawmaker Vitaly Milonov calls homosexuality a ‘perversion’ AFP]

After pop stars Madonna and Lady Gaga spoke in support of Russia’s embattled LGBT community during shows in St Petersburg, Milonov tried to sue them – but Russian courts ignored his requests.

‘Homosexual propaganda’

The “homosexual propaganda” legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2013 was pushed by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church and included a ban on holding public events that promote gay rights.

The law prompted an international outcry and condemnation from Western leaders, intellectuals and celebrities.

Gay rights campaigner Alexeyev was the law’s first victim – he was detained and fined after holding a one-man rally protesting the law.

In mid-January, Yelena Klimova – moderator of an Internet portal that has published more than 1,000 heart-wrenching confessions of Russian LGBT teenagers – has been charged with providing “homosexual propaganda” to minors and is now facing a fine of up to 100,000 roubles ($1,500).

Gay rights activists and government critics considered the bill part of a Kremlin crackdown on minorities of any kind – political and religious as well as sexual – designed to distract public attention from discontent with Putin’s rule and official corruption.

But many Russians saw the legislation as a positive development.

Opinion polls conducted in 2012, when the bill was being widely discussed, by Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent pollster, showed almost two-thirds of Russians find homosexuality “morally unacceptable and worth condemning”.

About a half of those polled were against holding gay rallies and legalising same-sex marriage. More than one-third considered homosexuality “a sickness or a psychological trauma”, according to Levada’s survey.

Closeted pop stars

Surprisingly, shows on Russia’s national television often feature male performers wearing drag and makeup and acting effeminately – or scantily-clad female singers enacting lesbian caresses.

Tatu – a duo of straight young women who were often dressed as schoolgirls and acted like two underage lesbians on stage and in music videos – became Russia’s most successful international pop act in the early 2000s. The duo’s producer said later the lesbian angle was a marketing gimmick aimed at attracting more attention. 

I feel like a spy on enemy territory. There's psychological pressure, and it drives you mad, like you are in a war zone. And it is a war.

by - Anton, homosexual man in Moscow

But despite widespread allegations in tabloids that accuse some of Russia’s most popular pop stars of homosexual proclivities, none ever came out – perhaps because such a move would ruin their chances to be seen on TV and tour Russia.

Kremlin-approved campaign

However, prime-time shows on Russian television often feature politicians and public figures whose vitriolic speeches fuel homophobia.

An anchor with a government-funded television network said in a 2013 talk show that gays should be prohibited from donating blood and organs for transplants, and their hearts “should be burned and buried”.

These days the anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, heads one of Russia’s largest news agencies that broadcasts Kremlin’s viewpoint internationally in nine languages.

Several lawmakers have said gays contributed to Russia’s low birth rates and they should be barred from government jobs, undergo forced medical treatment, or be exiled.

Any attempt to hold a gay pride parade turns into a battle with predictable winners and losers.

Orthodox activists, members of pro-Kremlin youth movements, Cossacks, and nationalists help police disperse unsanctioned gay rallies, while Moscow authorities have issued a 100-year ban on them because of their “satanic” nature.

Apart from public events and figures, rampant homophobia poisons the lives of Russian LGBT community.

“I feel like a spy on enemy territory,” Anton, a gay Muscovite in his mid-40s, told Al Jazeera. He refused to provide his last name because of safety concerns.

“There’s psychological pressure and it drives you mad, like you are in a war zone,” he said. “And it is a war.”

There are no official estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms.

Many of these clubs have recently been raided by mask-wearing men with baseball bats and pepper spray.

Worse than Moscow

In other parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union, gays feel even less secure.

A Neo-Nazi gang uses social networking and dating websites to identify gay teenagers, beat and humiliate them in front of a video camera, and post the videos online. Although the gang’s leader, Maxim Martsinkevich, also known as “Tesak” (Cleaver), has been sentenced to five years in jail for “inciting hatred,” his followers are still active throughout Russia.

Inside story: The punks, the pulpet and the president

Gay rights activists say in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia, some homosexual men have been beaten and had their hands cut off, sometimes by their own relatives, for bringing shame on their families.

“You don’t have any human rights down there,” a gay man from Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, told Al Jazeera. “Anything can be done to you with impunity.”

Anti-LGBT laws and initiatives are seen as a rollback to the totalitarian Soviet past – and not only in Russia.

The 1993 removal of a Stalinist-era law punishing homosexuality with up to five years in jail was seen in Russia as a logical part of democratic reforms that followed the Soviet collapse.

In the 1990s, most of the ex-Soviet states followed suit by decriminalising homosexuality.

Official and public attitudes towards same-sex love prove to be a perfect litmus test of democratic and liberal freedoms in the former Soviet Union.

Gay parades have been held in the three former Soviet Baltic states that are now members of the European Union.

But in authoritarian Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, homosexuality is still a crime punishable by jail-time – and corrupt policemen often hunt down gays to extort money, otherwise threatening them with humiliating criminal charges.

Source: Al Jazeera