Between “foreign agents” and “propaganda”: How new legislation targets Russia’s LGBTI community9 min read
With global attention still largely focused on war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s administration has introduced a new amendment to Russia’s propaganda laws. This move will have devastating consequences for the country’s LGBTI community.
Just two weeks after approval from the State Duma, the new amendment was officially committed to federal law. As a result, the infamous 2013 propaganda laws targeting LGBTI relationships will now apply to everyone, not just children. The spread of any “propaganda” regarding “non-traditional sexual relations,” i.e., queer relationships, in the media, advertising, films, and social media, is now an offence in Russia.
The 2013 Law
The Russian government first banned the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors in 2013. Article 6.21 of the Administrative Code defined “propaganda” as the imposition of information about relationships “that arouse interest in such relationships,” and “which distort the idea of social equivalence and non-traditional sexual relations.” The Supreme Court of Russia additionally explained in 2012, that “non-traditional sexuality” included male homosexuality, bisexuality, lesbian, and transgender experiences.
For Russian citizens or organisations found to be in breach of the law, the required punishment was a monetary fine. Individuals could face an up to 5,000 rouble fine (approximately 63 Euros), or up to 100,000 roubles (1,250 Euros) with the use of mass media, including the internet. Meanwhile, non-citizens could face 15 days imprisonment and expulsion from the country. Since 2013, just over 100 cases relating to the ban on “propaganda” have ended up in court. Nonetheless, the laws have often been used to justify bans on Pride marches and the detention of LGBTI activists.
In November 2022, the upper house of Russia’s parliament unanimously voted to toughen the 2013 propaganda law, so it would now apply to all ages, not just those under 18. The bill was eventually signed into law by President Putin in early December.
Where the original 2013 law appeared to lead to dozens of fines for those in breach of the law, the new amendments are set to have a much more pervasive impact on the everyday life of Russia’s queer community. For instance, it is now an offence to “promote” or “praise” LGBTI relationships, or to otherwise publicly suggest that non-heterosexual orientations are “normal” in any capacity.
Associated penalties for the law have also more than doubled. Individuals could face a fine up to 400,000 roubles (around 5,000 Euros), while organisations could face up to 5 million roubles (64,000 Euros).
A primary source of concern for LGBTI activists since 2013 has been the vague wording of the law. As the European Court of Human Rights has stated, any ambiguity in the law allows for arbitrary application and, therefore, the potential for an abuse of power by authorities.
Recent amendments to the law offer no more clarification, leaving the law as vague as it was in 2013. However, with it now being applicable to everyone in the country, the number of unsubstantiated cases is surely set to rise.
In particular, the media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has also been provided with much more authority and responsibility to monitor information in search of LGBTI “propaganda.” Although it is expected that the order will enter into force in September 2023, many films with LGBTI storylines have already been removed from Russian streaming sites.
A Russian Senator, Taimuraz Dzambekovich, said before voting for the bill: “The louder they squeal in the West, the more we will be sure that we are on the right track.” This sentiment was echoed by numerous officials and high-profile figures across the country.
Under Vladimir Putin, the targeting of LGBTI identities and communities in Russia has always been presented as a protection of “Russian” values of family and religion against Western influence.
With Russia’s war in Ukraine, there has been a perceived need from the side of officials to increase anti-Western, pro-Russian rhetoric. Meanwhile, others have speculated that the amendments to the law in 2022 have been primarily used as a distraction from recent military failures in Ukraine. Targeting LGBTI rights has, therefore, been an easy way of achieving this, such that, ten years later, the narratives used to justify the law are still the same.
Both the European Court of Human Rights and the UN’s Human Rights Committee have stressed that one of the most significant impacts of the 2013 propaganda laws has been the derogatory image cast of the LGBTI community.
Through its wording, the law has aligned non-heterosexual relationships and transgender identities with paedophilia by treating these terms as somewhat synonymous. Meanwhile, the new version of the law determines that providing information about queer identities, or even childless families, as being on par with pornography, violence, or extremism.
Through these comparisons, queer relationships are presented as dangerous and a threat to society. The subsequent increase in stigmatisation has contributed to an increase in violence against the LGBTI community in Russia. It has not been a coincidence that, in 2014, one year after the 2013 law came into effect, there were 31 reported hate crimes against LGBTI individuals and 284 reported cases of violence and discrimination in 2015.
There are now fears that this new amendment will lead to an increase in violence against the LGBTI persons similar to the rise 10 years ago.
Support systems and organisations have also been targeted. Due to the “foreign agents” bill, many LGBTI rights groups receiving funds from abroad have been legally required to identify as “foreign agents” by Russian authorities – notably the Russian Ministry of Justice. The law ultimately limits funding for NGOs labelled “foreign agents.” These organisations are further weakened by bureaucratic red tape and unannounced audits.
While the foreign agents law limits organisational strength, the gay propaganda law limits the information available to LGBTI individuals. Popular LGBTI websites were shut down as a result of the law, including the sites ParniPlus, AIDS.Centre., and Gay.ru.
Ultimately, the combination of the foreign agents law and the propaganda laws have led to a lack of important information about LGBTI networks and queer relationships for young people in Russia. This has impacted LGBTI activism since 2013, as queer organisations have been unable to recruit or engage with anyone under the age of 18. With recent changes to the propaganda law, it will be even more challenging for LGBTI organisations to recruit new members, given that they are unable to engage with anyone, not just those under the age of 18.
Although LGBTI rights activists have developed several strategies for surviving in the context of the foreign agents bill — for example, though a strategy of informalisation — the recent crackdown on the spread of LGBTI “propaganda” is set to diminish any form of organisation, not just for formalised groups.
Furthermore, an expansion of the foreign agents law also came into force in December 2022. Although the previous version of the law had been implemented more arbitrarily in recent years, this amendment formalises an expanded definition of a foreign agent. It determines that any individual or group engaging in civic activism, or who express opinions about Russian policies or officials’ conduct, can be considered a “foreign agent”, so long as authorities claim they are under “foreign influence”.
The inability to spread information about LGBTI networks and support, due to the potential repercussions, is set to add further challenges to recruitment and funding for both informal and formal queer activist groups and campaigners, therefore, limiting and weakening their impact.
Another major impact of the 2022 laws is the increased loss of visibility and freedom of expression for LGBTI people in Russia. Through such a decrease in visibility caused by the recent amendments, queer communities are likely to become more vulnerable to homophobic abuse and a decrease in their mental health.
For example, the law has increased the erasure of LGBTI stories and representation in Russia and literature has been subject to an immediate increase in censure. Since 2013, controversial novels have been edited and physically covered by plastic wrap in book shops in order to prevent the viewing of LGBTI content for young people, as required by the propaganda law. Queer characters and dialogue have been erased from books and films. The novel “Shattered,” a love story between two men, has almost full pages of script redacted. Victoria Swab’s novel “Shades of Magic” had a queer love scene removed by Russian publishers. Coy Mathis, a transgender girl in the USA, was removed from the “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” book of 100 prominent women, therefore leaving one story less than promised. Each of these changes, and countless more, have all been part of publishers’ efforts to comply with the propaganda laws.
However, as a result of the amendments to the law in 2022, many bookstores have taken steps to rid themselves of now problematic books by offering large discounts to customers, while bookstores are now obliged to cover all LGBTI books, not just those marked for over 18s.
The increased need to censure these works will greatly impact the willingness of companies to publish queer-friendly books, let alone the ability of any customer to purchase and read one. Overall, the declining visibility of queer identities and expression will contribute to the general increase in stigmatisation of LGBTI people in Russia.
Are there any positives?
Although life may look bleak for the queer community in Russia, there is still hope. There are still routes to avoiding or protesting the bans, while not all sections of society will be convinced by the state’s view of LGBTI identities.
In fact, recent data has indicated that almost 70% of younger Russians consider the LGBTI community to be “normal.” Not only does this suggest there are a large number of LGBTI allies, it also puts into doubt the effectiveness of the initial propaganda laws of 2013, and subsequently those of 2022 – especially since the 2013 laws were specifically aimed at this age group.
Furthermore, the 2013 propaganda laws showed to have somewhat of an opposite effect than one of their intended purposes by increasing the mobilisation of LGBTI activists. By providing a central point to rally against, in a way, the laws concentrated frustrations at the state from the LGBTI community and activists. It is, therefore, possible that this new bill will have the same effect.
To maintain visibility and freedom of expression, queer activists have taken steps to ensure the preservation of LGBTI history and identity. One group, for example, has created a guidebook to LGBTI artwork in Russia’s State Hermitage Museum and have uploaded it to the internet in an attempt to protect access to these pieces. Publishing books underground is also not out of the question. Similarly, despite Russia’s queer museum being forced to close in December, the curator has expressed his intentions to move the items to another European museum as one of the only means to continue sharing them, in the hope that the move will only be temporary.
Therefore, although the 2022 amendments to the propaganda laws have had, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on the country’s LGBTI community, routes to maintaining LGBTI visibility and the spread of aid for queer people in the country may likely persist against the new laws.