Russia's Attack on LGBTQ Existence
The Kremlin has linked its war in Ukraine to a crackdown on the LGBTQ community.
On November 30, Russia's supreme court outlawed the "international LGBT public movement" as an "extremist" organization. The hearing was closed to the public. Since the "international LGBT public movement" does not exist, the ruling invites authorities to prosecute any person or organization deemed a part of the "movement." Russia has long used its anti-extremist law to outlaw not only actual extremists like neo-Nazis, but has also used it to prosecute independent media, Jehovah's Witnesses, and opposition groups associated with jailed dissident Alexei Navalny.
The ruling had very fast and very real consequences. On the night of Dec. 1, Moscow police raided a gay party. The Associated Press reported that patrons' documents were checked and photographed by the security services; owners of other gay clubs were warned of future raids. Another gay club in St. Petersburg preemptively shut down after the court made its decision.
Egor Kotkin, an openly gay writer in Moscow, said that the raids "shocked" him. "Since the first attack was on the gay clubs, it means no kind of LGBT behavior is tolerable anymore," he told me in a direct message. "This is an attack not on our infrastructure, but our existence." He added that he "constantly" worried about safety, even living in a "gay-friendly personal bubble" with a supportive employer, landlord, and friends, but "the sense that [the bubble] can burst at any moment is exhausting."
In the Russian state media bubble, the decision was celebrated. Nationalist MP Alexei Zhuravlyov said on state-controlled Channel One the ruling was only possible because of Russia's war in Ukraine, which he called by its euphemistic official name, the "special military operation." Talk show host Artyom Sheynin gleefully agreed with him: "We’re on the offensive on that front too!"
The Russian government has linked its anti-gay rhetoric and laws to its very survival as a country. Given that Russia's birth rate fell precipitously after the Soviet collapse and Putin's efforts to increase it have not been met with much success, the government picked LGBTQ people as a scapegoat. (In the past few months, Russia has also moved to restrict abortion.) But more broadly, the government has made LGBTQ people the enemy in its existential fight against the West. Around 2013, gay marriage and gay adoption were becoming legal in more and more Western democracies, and that same year Russia passed a law banning the propaganda of "non-traditional relationships" for minors.
Putin's anti-gay rhetoric has escalated in the past few years and especially since launching an aggressive war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin views as the central front in its existential war against the West. In announcing the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Putin said that the West had tried to destroy Russia's "traditional values." In a speech the following September, Putin called the West "satanic" because it turned away from "traditional" values.
In March 2024, Putin is holding a presidential election -- which will be neither free nor fair -- and there are signs that his war in Ukraine is becoming less popular. In an October telephone survey of Russians conducted by Project Chronicles, 40 percent said they favored withdrawing troops without achieving the war's goals, while 33 percent did not; the latter number measured 47 percent eight months prior. The polling organization Levada Center reported that in October, 45 percent of Russians thought the "special military operation" was moving in the wrong direction, while 14 percent thought it was going in the right direction. Meanwhile, Putin ordered the military to increase its troops by nearly 170,000 to a total of 1.32 million in a Dec. 1 decree, raising the specter of another mobilization. (Russia has an annual draft, but in September 2022, Putin issued a "partial" mobilization of military reservists, sparking men to flee the country.)
Given fading enthusiasm for the war, the Russian government may be attempting to crack down on the LGBTQ community to try to drum up patriotic support. However, the tactic will further endanger Russia's beleaguered LGBTQ community, many of whom have already emigrated. More may leave, provided they have money and passports, but others simply feel rooted with lives, families, and jobs. The writer Kotkin said to me: "I don't feel like living discreetly, but I also don’t feel like leaving unless I absolutely have to. So I’m taking my chances right now, having no idea where I’ll end up in a year." He added: "It’s not that easy to uproot us all." The Russian state, however, is doing everything to try.
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