Do Putin’s comments mark a turning-point for LGBT rights in Russia?

Most people in Russia were quite intolerant toward LGBT people even before the "anti-gay" campaign was launched. Source: Andrey Stenin/RIA Novosti

Most people in Russia were quite intolerant toward LGBT people even before the "anti-gay" campaign was launched. Source: Andrey Stenin/RIA Novosti

In a recently-broadcast film, Russian President Vladimir Putin has advised Russians to get rid of their aggression toward sexual minorities. While many observers do not believe that the climate is not yet right for a large-scale change in attitudes in Russian society, the LGBT movement is hoping for a change in policy from the authorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for Russians to rid themselves of aggression toward sexual minorities, sparking discussion of a possible softening of the country’s official stance on homosexuality.  

In a film about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi broadcast by Russian TV channel Rossia-24 in early February, the Russian president said that is "each person's business" to choose what kind of sexual life to have, underling that there is no criminal prosecution for homosexuality in Russia.

"And now about the law on sexual minorities […] Both traditionally oriented people and non-traditionally oriented people should get rid of their aggression, treat each other in a simpler way," said Putin.

The state policy toward Russia’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community has been consistently draconian in recent years, as a result of which the country has become the target of sustained criticism from Western governments and prominent supporters of gay rights, much of it aimed at the now-infamous law prohibiting the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors," signed by Putin in summer 2013.

The Russian leader’s call for tolerance sounds almost revolutionary in this context. However, commentators interviewed by RBTH believe that Russian society is not yet prepared to revise its homophobic attitudes, and responsibility for altering public perception is likely to fall initially upon the authorities themselves.

A wave of homophobia

"Why do these people form same-sex marriages and essentially don't want to have children, but say, ‘Give us other people's [children]’?" asked Communist lawmaker Mikhail Zapolev indignantly in July 2013.

Immediately after Russian parliamentarians had voted for the law prohibiting "gay propaganda," they had a new cause for concern – France legalized same-sex marriage. Out of fear that children would be "artificially compelled" to embrace "non-traditional sexual behavior" a ban was slapped on adoptions by same-sex couples, as well as by the citizens of those countries that recognize same-sex marriages.

Since then, a number of people have been held accountable under the law on "gay propaganda." They include the founder of the Internet project Children-404, Yelena Klimova. (Deti-404.com supports LGBT children and provides free psychological and legal assistance to them).

The country has also witnessed the emergence of groups of activists engaged in "forced outing," who identify gay people and publicly disclose this information without their consent.

There was also a proposal made at the State Duma to ban homosexuals from being blood donors. Still, there is no longer any discussion in the lower chamber of the parliament of any updates to the legislation concerning LGBT people, said Konstantin Subbotin, a member of the State Duma's committee on issues concerning family, women and children.

What is behind mass hysteria?

Yet for many outside Russia, the widespread social hysteria in the country over the LGBT issue is puzzling. Natalya Zorkaya, the head of the social and political studies department of the Levada Center, says that "it is ignorance and fear, rather than a conscious stance that stands behind the hysteria about 'propaganda’.”

Most people in Russia were quite intolerant toward LGBT people even before the "anti-gay" campaign was launched, explains Zorkaya.

But people assumed it did not concern them, and it was only when this issue was brought into the public sphere that the anger became apparent. "This confirms the level of support for the anti-homosexual laws," says Zorkaya.

However, according to Nikolai Alexeyev, an activist with the LGBT movement and the founder of the human rights project GayRussia.ru, to a certain extent government figures have taken advantage of the issue over the last few years out of expediency.  

"The wave of political homophobia is a reaction to the activities of the LGBT movement" as well as the desire, given the acuteness of the theme, "to amass some political capital," says Alexeyev.

"Quite a few contemporary politicians have risen [to prominence] on the back of this topic, which guarantees media attention for them," he said.

Government has reason for change of tack

While some may see Putin’s comments as a sign that the political wind could be changing in Russia, Natalya Zorkaya says are no guarantees that homophobia in society will decrease.

"People thought that their supposedly stable, decent existence was the most important achievement of the last era, but now, during the crisis, when there is no more stability, negative sentiment will only grow," said Zorkaya.

For Russia’s LGBT community, however, the president’s comments have not come as a surprise, and they are anticipating further political statements that will contribute to the growth of tolerance. "Putin was more reserved on this issue, and now he has swung to the liberal side," says Nikolai Alexeyev.

According to him, with the huge international event that is the FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia in 2018, and bearing in mind the controversy at the Sochi Olympics over alleged discrimination against LGBT people, the authorities will not allow this issue to remain high-profile.

"I think the rhetoric will change in the next few years," says Alexeyev hopefully.

Read more: Being gay in today’s Russia

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