Issue 4 Online Extra: The Winter Olympics & Russia’s Anti-Gay Propaganda Laws

Please note: This article was first published on the original version of The New Idealist online in February 2014 before being added to this newly created site in July 2015.

This article is a companion piece to Issue 4 which you can download here

By Jasmine O’Connor, Senior International Officer, Stonewall

In many parts of the world, gay people are facing repeated attacks on their fundamental rights. In 78 countries, sex between consenting men is illegal. Shockingly, in five countries gay sex is punishable by death.  Gay people are policed not only for campaigning, lobbying, challenging or protesting, like many groups with views that contradict their governments, but for simply existing. By existing, we are seen to contaminate the world around us.

Even when governments accept that the state shouldn’t police what people do in their bedrooms, very often efforts to prevent homosexuality being ‘spread’ continue.  While you shouldn’t interfere in the right for consenting adults to engage in ‘perverted’ behaviour, the argument goes, you shouldn’t actively promote or expose respectable citizens to their ‘lifestyle’.

Anti-gay ‘propaganda’ laws have been passed or are being proposed in a number of countries, Pride marches are banned along with books, newspaper articles and plays which look favourably on gay equality. Activists tell us that their government’s say these actions are justified because gay people pose an active ‘threat’ to the state. Threats to the fabric of society, to public safety (pride marches encourage violence against them), family life, children and the security of the state. The argument goes that we must curtail their freedom for fear of the harm it will do to others and wider society.

In Russia, freedom of expression for gay people has been particularly curtailed. In 2006 the Legislative Assembly of Ryzan adopted a law prohibiting the ‘propaganda of homosexuality’. Sadly, nine more regions followed suit. In June 2013 the Russian Parliament adopted a federal law banning the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.’ The stated objectives of such laws are to protect children and young people from the ‘corrupting influence of gay propaganda’, prevent the ‘popularisation of homosexuality’ and to afford the traditional notion of the Russian family the ‘special protection’ it deserves.

Russia’s anti-gay federal law needs to be seen in a wider context. All voices seen to be anything approaching ‘liberal’ have been increasingly side-lined and suppressed by the Russian state. Putin has set about strengthening his position by aligning his policies with Russia’s conservative majority and the Orthodox Church. Anti-gay propaganda legislation sits among notorious laws on ‘foreign agents,’ ‘treason’ and libel. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people, atheists and feminists have all been silenced to a greater or lesser extent. While the Russian economy falters and people begin to voice their dissatisfaction with poor public services and high levels of corruption, Putin appears to be diverting public anger onto minority groups in a divide and rule strategy. Sadly this appears to be working.

But before we rush in, up in arms over Putin’s policies, we must not forget that it was only a generation ago that the British Government introduced the hated Section 28. The provision, added to the Local Government Act, prohibited local authorities who delivered education and youth services from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promoting the teaching of homosexuality’ as a ‘pretend family relationship.’ The introduction of Section 28 led to Stonewall being founded by a small group of people in 1989. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, following a lengthy campaign.

We cannot discuss current anti-gay laws around the world without reflecting on the fact that, within many of our lifetimes, these arguments held weight and indeed informed government policy in Britain. Indeed these views are still held by a small minority of parliamentarians. During debates on equal marriage in England and Wales some members of the House of Lords raised concerns about ‘promoting’ same-sex marriage and homosexuality. So, while we can criticise and campaign, as we did in the United Kingdom, we must avoid the temptation of thinking that states like Russia are a distinctly new form of homophobia unseen in the West and Global North.

Although Section 28 was not as pernicious as the current laws in Russia it did leave its mark on a generation of children. Many students who were coming to terms with their sexual orientation – whether they grew up to be gay or straight – were denied information which could have helped them. Many were left isolated or persecuted while teachers looked on feeling unable to intervene.  Stonewall’s 2012 School Report found that 55 per cent of gay students still experience homophobic bullying at school. A third of gay pupils who experience homophobic bullying change their future plans because of it, often opting out of further education.  A generation of lesbian, gay and bisexual people meanwhile are more likely to attempt suicide, self-harm and have poor mental health.

So how can we best support LGB & T activists as we approach the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014? Some supporters of gay equality from the UK and elsewhere have called for a complete boycott of the Games and others for protests both inside and outside the stadium. At Stonewall we have taken care to listen to the views of LGB & T activists inside Russia. They are not calling for a boycott as they do not think it would work and would actually risk a backlash. They are concerned that such a public shaming of the Putin Government could result in an entrenchment of positions. Some are instead arguing for governments to send more junior representatives and signal that they are concerned about the wide range of human rights abuses taking place in Russia, not only for LGB & T citizens.

At Stonewall we are aware that although the Winter Olympics presents an opportunity to raise awareness and encourage governments around the world to state their concerns the Russian Government is not likely to backtrack on its position overnight.  We know from our own experience campaigning to repeal Section 28 that change takes time. We need to stay the course with Russian activists and continue to support them long after the spotlight of the Olympics has moved on.

@Jasmine_OC
@StonewallUK

(This article is a companion piece to Issue 4 which you can download here)

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