Being Queer in Russia: The Enemy Within

It’s hard to think of a more classical play on the part of a regime than creating a common enemy for its people to unite against. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Orwell’s Big Brother… All the ‘greats’ have done it. Obviously, Vladimir Putin is no exception. Having taken the West and its “attacks against traditional family values”, Putin’s Russia has a wide scope of totemic enemies, with perhaps no group so thoroughly targeted as the members of the LGBT community. Though never well-tolerated in Russia, queer individuals and organisations have recently been facing unprecedented levels of discrimination, with both law and society being actively turned against them by the state narrative.

As of August 2023, same-sex marriages are not recognized under Russian law and same sex couples, along with single openly queer individuals, are not able to adopt children, with most queer parents also in dangers of losing custody in case of divorce. Due to the most recent (July 2023) anti-trans bill, gender-affirming medical care is no longer legally accessible, with the state also preventing trans individuals from updating their gender status on official documents. No anti-discrimination laws are in place to protect the members of the LGBT community, resulting in a high number of cases of homophobia and transphobia-motivated violence. According to the data collected by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe  (OSCE), the amount of hate crimes recorded by police rose from 52 to 833 annually between 2017 and 2021, with the majority of cases believed to go unrecorded.

Many international human rights organisations and governments have condemned Russia’s treatment of the members of the LGBT community, including the European Parliament, the European Council for Human Rights, and the leaders of the majority of western countries. Nevertheless, with Russia already placed under heavy sanctions as a result of its invasion of Ukraine and with its international relationships with most western countries being virtually non-existent, the applying of outside pressure is not likely to invoke real change.

The situation is further worsened by the state’s federal censorship laws which has banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” in texts and media available to minors (as of 2013), and which has then recently (December 2022) been expanded to now cover all media, regardless of the age of its intended consumer. The law, although on the surface claiming to be primarily aimed against paedophilia and distribution of child pornography, in practice censors mentions of any orientation, family dynamic, relationship and gender presentation that do not match the ‘traditional’ monogamous cisgender heterosexual model. Individuals found guilty of promoting ‘relations’ deemed harmful by the law online may be subject to a fine of up to 100,000 roubles (roughly 1000 USD), while organisations can be forced to cease operations on top of being fined up to 1,000,000 roubles (10,000 USD).

This, along with Russia’s infamous ‘foreign agent’ law which the government has a recorded tradition of using to suppress freedom of speech and target opposition groups, makes organisations supporting LGBT individuals and their rights almost impossible to operate above ground. Most of those which have, in the past, tried to operate lawfully within Russia to change the system from inside, have found themselves in legal trouble, with their members and activists supporting them, being targeted by law enforcement. Organisations operating primarily online such as Gay.Ru, Russia’s most prominent internet resource for LGBT people during the 20+ years of its operation, are being added to the list of prohibited sources and thus blocked from being accessed by Russian citizens. The situation is not any better for organisations operating in real life. Russian LGBT Network, Russia’s only registered inter-regional LGBT rights organisation which sought to provide members of the LGBT community with access to legal and medical aid as well as representation and recognition, last year found itself subject to a lawsuit from Russia’s Justice Ministry. The state requested that Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Network operated, be liquidated as, according to the lawsuit, “all its activates run contrary to the state policy designed to preserve, expand and develop [the country’s] human capital.”

The federal status quo is only the baseline. In specific regions of Russia, especially the more rural ones, queer individuals and groups are subjected to additional forms of discrimination. Nowhere has those been as drastic as in Chechnya, in which homosexuality is illegal and de facto punishable by death since 2017, when a lethal crackdown of massive scale on the members of the LGBT community took place, with hundreds of homosexual and bisexual men targeted for kidnappings, beatings and, in some cases, murder at the hands of the police. Chechnyan leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has famously refused to take responsibility for the mass murder and violation of human rights his forces have committed, stating to the Interfax news agency that “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

For many queer people, the conditions in Chechnya and in Russia in general are a reason to leave the country. The task of emigration, while never easy, has however since 2021 been made especially difficult. Many countries, including all the members of the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, have drastically reduced the amount of visas they issue to Russian citizens, with those that do get issued usually being short-term work or student visas that require frequent renewal. For those whose visas application get denied, leaving Russia as a refugee usually remains the only option. Hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees have sought asylum in the West since the war began, a number in big part consisting of political refugees and conscientious objectors to the war. It is unclear just how many of them are queer.

Of course, for the majority of Russian members of the LGBT community, leaving is not an option. Be it for economic, social, personal or other reasons, millions of queer people are currently still residing in Russia with no plan to leave. For them, both crisis help and day to day activities are often provided and facilitated by organisations actively hunted down by the Kremlin.

For trans individuals, Center T, a network whose internet site is since July in the process of being blocked in the same was as was, provides access to trans-friendly medical practitioners in cities all over Russia, helps youth in crisis find shelter and support themselves in tough family situations and organises meeting, seminars and safe spaces in which it’s possible to meet and talk with members of the same community.

For queer individuals, especially bisexual and homosexual men, whose lives are currently in danger in Chechnya, the SK SOS Crisis Group helps leave the region, either for safer parts of Russia (where they however still face the risk of being seized by Chechen forces and returned to ‘gay gulags’ such as the one in the city of Grozny) or other countries. The group has in the past helped hundreds of individuals to safety, while also providing help to queer people all across Northern Caucasus in other ways. SK SOS Crisis has been deemed a ‘foreign agent’ in May 2023, but has declared that it will continue operations and not leave those in need to fend for themselves.

Despite the danger and persecution, the members of the community refuse to let themselves be silenced. In many Russian cities, especially in the Moscow region, gay bars, clubs and event spaces remain open, now with extra measures taken to ensure safety of the attendees while they are on the premises and specially selected drivers taking them home to make sure they are not left vulnerable when leaving. Though the traditional social media are compromised, Telegram and, lately more often, Signal, provide a safe means of communications via encryption, with many organisations moving to operate fully from them after their websites fall to the ‘anti-propaganda’ blockade. Independent, liberal news outlets, such as Medusa and Gazeta Novaya, continue to report on stories concerning the LGBT community, including the hate crimes that somehow slip the police records. The community, though challenged, lives on.

Bettering the legal treatment of queer people in Russia is not a task likely to succeed under the current regime. As it is, the best way of providing support for the members of the LGBT community is to donate to aid-providing organisations such as Center T and the SK SOS Crisis Group, spread awareness of the issue and, for those outside of the Russian Federation, to try one’s best to make one’s own countries welcoming to Russian refugees. On the governmental side, countries must continue on with the sanctions against Russia and do whatever is in their power to make transition easier to those who want to seek asylum out of it.


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