Russia Bans Everything That Doesn’t Look Hetero, Just in Time For Olympics

Aug 14, 2013 • Culture, Freedom, LGBT, Sports

anti-gay law in Russia

In June, Russian president Vladimir Putin passed into law a ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” This ban — which originally targeted “homosexual propaganda” — is, in effect, a Russian version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on a national level, riding on the back of Think Of The Children fear-mongering. Supporters have defended it, saying it doesn’t outlaw homosexuality, simply restricts the discussion of nontraditional relationships among people who are below 18 years of age, but recent brutal clashes between lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) activists and allies have already shown how desperate the situation is for anyone who identifies as LGBT. How can anyone see this position as anything other than a government sanction of homophobia?

Yelena Mizulina, a key figure behind the law and co-author of the bill, said in an interview with REN-TV, one of Russia’s largest private channels, defined “nontraditional relationships” as relationships that portray “men with men, women with women, bisexuality and being transgender.” The law itself, however, is incredibly vague, giving law enforcement plenty of room for interpretation. According to the Washington Post:

The definition of “propaganda” is vague and hinges on intent. Anyone who distributes information with the “intention” of persuading minors that nontraditional sexual relationships are “attractive” or “interesting,” or even “socially equivalent to traditional relationships” could be accused of breaking the law.

The law does not outlaw gay sex, which was legalized in Russia in 1993. It does not explicitly ban participation in gay pride parades or promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality online, but anyone wearing a rainbow flag on the street or writing about gay relationships on Facebook, for instance, could be accused of propagandizing.

No one has yet been brought to trial under the new law. If convicted, offenders face fines ranging between 5,000 rubles (USD $150) for private citizens, and one million rubles (USD $30,000) for organizations. Individuals using the internet or media to disseminate “propaganda” face even harsher fines: 100,000 (USD $3,000) if convicted. The prohibitions do not exempt foreigners, who may be fined up to 100,000 rubles and sentenced to spend 15 days in prison.

This ban comes on the heels of a Russian ban, signed on July 3, on adoption of children born in Russia to gay couples, or to people living in countries that have embraced marriage equality. Vladimir Putin has made his intentions clear: anything that suggests a deviation from cookie-cutter heterosexuality is unwelcome in Russia.

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, this issue has started to gain a lot of traction. How will the Russian government handle displays or suspicions of “propaganda” among tourists, athletes, and officials during the games? The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has assured the public that the “anti-gay law won’t affect” the Olympics, saying they will do what they must to protect athletes, but Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), has gone on the record to say that Russia’s position “has to be respected.” How protected are the athletes and their families, who very much are affected, and who seem to have no support from IAAF? And what about the fans?

We might have a chance to find out — after winning a silver medal at the World Track & Field Championships in Moscow yesterday, American runner Nick Symmonds dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends, becoming the first athlete to voice opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws while on Russian soil.

“Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights,” the 29-year-old said after running the 800-meter race. “If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.”

Will the law see this as an endorsement of nontraditional relationships?

American figure skate Johnny Weir, who hopes to win a spot into the 2014 games, told the media recently that he is willing to be charged with breaking the law as a way to get people to pay attention and to lobby against the measure.

Russia is also slated to host the World Cup 2018. In response to the law, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the international governing body of the soccer association, has requested “clarification and more details,” but its CEO, Alexey Sorokin has defended the law, saying: “It is designed against active propaganda of homosexuality, not against homosexuality itself. Would you like a World Cup where naked people are running around displaying their homosexuality? The answer to that is quite obvious. The Olympics and World Cup are not a stage for various views — not for Nazis, not for any other ways of life. It should be about football and nothing else.”

American president Barack Obama has voiced similarly weak assertions: “Every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.” He did go on to suggest that the United States would not tolerate mistreatment of individuals on the basis of their sexuality, however, when he said: “I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”

UPDATE: The Russian Ministry of the Interior, which controls Russian police, has confirmed that Russia intends to enforce the anti-gay and anti-trans law in full at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Header image by Les Chatfield.