The Russian version of Elton John’s biopic Rocketman has reportedly cut several scenes depicting the singer’s homosexuality, citing laws banning “homosexual propaganda.” The film’s final caption referencing the openly gay singer’s life with his husband and their children was also cut. These edits come despite the film being rated 18+ and the law having a specific focus on “protecting children.” The law was passed in 2013 and restricts “information advocating for denial of traditional family values” and effectively prohibits any public display of homosexuality.
The filmmakers and Sir Elton John claimed they had been unaware of the sanitization of the film and issued a joint statement condemning it. They described the censors as “cruelly unaccepting of the love between two people.” Natalia Zviagina, the Director of Amnesty International’s Russian Office, similarly observed that the move served to insult and dehumanize same-sex relationships. Although the film distributor, the Central Partnership company, claimed the scenes were cut to comply with the law, the Russian Culture Ministry said it did not recommend removing any scenes. Contrary to its stated intention to “protect children,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the law has instead had a deeply negative impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. Michael Garcia Bochenek, HRW’s senior children’s rights counsel, said, “amid the intense social hostility surrounding LGBT people in Russia, the law stops mental health providers from counselling children who have questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 but despite this, the situation remains dire for the LGBT community. Over the past decade, Russian courts have repeatedly banned or backtracked on promises to allow gay pride parades, frequently citing the same law justifying the film’s censorship. Such instances resulted in a European human rights court ruling in 2018, which found that Russia’s systematic rejection of gay pride event applications violated sexual minorities’ rights to freedom of assembly. Those events that proceed despite the red tape are often met with intense violence. For instance, the sixth Annual Moscow Pride parade in 2011 was dismantled by violent counter-demonstrations by Orthodox and nationalist protestors, and police action against the unsanctioned rally. According to Moscow City Police, 18 gay activists were arrested. The national climate of hostility has created an atmosphere ripe for the persecution of LGBT individuals. This is exemplified by the series of anti-gay purges in Chechnya reported since 2017. Reports detail mass arrests and detainment of gay men in concentration camp-style prisons and instances of forced disappearances, torture and humiliation. A 2018 report into the purges by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) supported claims that persecution of LGBT persons had occurred and noted that perpetrators operated with impunity.
There have been promising signs for the fight for equality, including greater global acceptance of the LGBT community. In Russia, a recent poll showed nearly half of Russians support equal rights for LGBT individuals, in what is a 14-year high. However, political suppression and concerted efforts to marginalize the community have slowed progress. The censorship of the film comes in a long line of attempts by the Russian government to limit discourses which normalize the LGBT community, and has instead chosen approaches which stoke fear and distrust. The lack of acknowledgement of violence against and oppression of LGBT people, as is the case in Chechnya, are contrasted with the demonization of consensual exhibits of affection. This is evidence of the state-sanctioned cognitive dissonance surrounding LGBT issues. Following Zviagina’s appeal for the distributors to “take immediate steps to restore all deleted scenes of the movie” would be a small but vital step towards the propagation of human rights within Russia.