Let’s start with a touch of perspective. It’s not only Russia where sexual minorities suffer discrimination. In the United States, that beacon of tolerance, there’s still a huge amount of bigotry.
Some U.S. states still refuse to recognize same-sex marriage. And hate crimes and violence towards LGBT individuals remain a significant problem.
Russia does not have a monopoly on intolerance. However, there is a key difference. In the U.S., officials go to great lengths to espouse tolerant views and behavior. Laws have been passed, and are enforced, protecting LGBT rights. Hate crimes are prosecuted. In Russia, that is rarely the case.
That’s not just my view, it’s the opinion of Human Rights’ Watch, a New York-based rights group.
In their latest report on Russia, titled License to Harm, HRW finds the Russian authorities have not only “failed in their obligation to prevent and prosecute homophobic violence,” but have also “effectively legalized discrimination against LGBT people and cast them as second class citizens.”
The controversial measure the report singles out is, of course, Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” legislation.
The law bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” and was, according to HRW, one of several anti-LGBT measures adopted or proposed in 2013.
In their report, HRW says the law doesn’t actually protect anyone, but does give homophobes a reason to believe LGBT lives matter less to the Russian government.
The report goes on to document various horrific instances of violence and abuse against Russia’s LGBT community, including by radical nationalist groups luring gay men on the pretext of a fake date. It makes grim reading.
Read: Right group documents abuses
During the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labor. Homosexuals were regarded as pedophiles or fascists, outside normal society.
Laws explicitly banning homosexuality were lifted in 1993, after the Soviet collapse — though there was no amnesty for those jailed for sodomy — but the attitude appears to have stuck.
Even today, LGBT activists in Russia — like the couple I met in St. Petersburg recently — are regarded as outsiders, sometimes agents of the liberal West, to be distrusted.
The Saint Petersburg lawmaker behind the controversial “propaganda” law, Vitaly Milonov, underlined this when he told me that any Russians who want a same-sex marriage should move to the West “where they belong.”
That’s a potent connection in these times of growing tensions between Russia and the West.
Linking Russia’s LGBT community with the enemy taps into old fears of corrupt outsiders polluting Russian purity, and bodes extremely badly for hopes that discrimination in Russia will be tackled.