From the infamous “gay propaganda” law in 2013 to the mass persecution of perceived LGBTIQ people in Chechnya in 2017, it seems news of the deterioration of the rights of LGBTIQ people in Russia never ceases. Over recent weeks, a new headline has appeared - Vladimir Putin has vowed that same-sex marriage will not become a reality as long as he is president, and swiftly included a corresponding provision in proposed constitutional changes due to be voted on in a second reading by the State Duma this week, which will be put to a referendum next month.
The proposed ban on same-sex marriage is part of a long-standing pattern. Russia has been at the forefront of not only opposing recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people at home, but of actively, vocally and strategically opposing and regressing them at the UN.
Other proposed changes submitted concurrently with the same-sex marriage ban include codifying faith in God, ensuring a “defence of historical truth” regarding Russia’s role in the Second World War, and a string of changes relating to the power held by the office of the president. Experts warn that the move is an effort to solidify Putin’s hold on power before the expiration of his fourth presidential term in 2024.
Same-sex relations were decriminalised in Russia at the fall of the Soviet Union, but that is about the only freedom LGBTIQ people enjoy. The infamous “gay-propaganda” law bans any communication about LGBTIQ issues to children, be that in the media or online, and has been used to curtail any manifestations by LGBTIQ organisations, to shut down websites, and prosecute activists for comments made even on private social media pages.
LGBTIQ people are not protected from discrimination, hate crime or hate speech - all of which are prevalent at the hands of private and state actors, including vigilante groups which openly and publicly “hunt” predominantly gay or bisexual men with complete impunity. LGBTIQ organising has been significantly restricted through so-called “foreign agent laws” and increasingly, organisations are not able to register at all on the grounds that they violate public morals and family values and pose a threat to national security.
In this context, same-sex marriage is so far from the priorities of local activists, it seems almost outrageous. The Article 12 of the Family Code of the Russian Federation already defines marriage as between a man and a woman. As such, Putin’s proposed measure, and the fact that it will be put to a public vote with no doubt a corresponding campaign, constitutes complete legal overkill and only serves to increase hate and stigma against LGBTIQ people.
Claiming that same-sex marriage is so threatening to society that it merits its own legal restrictions is a tactic we have seen used in different parts of the world. Constitutional bans on same-sex marriage have been introduced in Latvia (2005), Lithuania (2013), Slovakia (2014), Armenia (2015) and elsewhere. While LGBTIQ people face legal and social challenges in all of the aforementioned countries, there has also been progress in societal acceptance and some recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people. Another place where the human rights of LGBTIQ people have been steadily deteriorating, yet still a “same-sex marriage (prohibition) act” was passed, is Nigeria. Nigeria criminalises same-sex relations, civil society organisations which work on LGBTIQ issues are not able to register, and same-sex marriage is worlds away, making the law superfluous.
What it does achieve is presenting LGBTIQ people as a danger to society, thus enabling authorities to subject LGBTIQ people to arbitrary arrest and extortion. 47 men are currently on trial charged under this law after attending a private birthday party. LGBTIQ organisations working underground have also experienced more harassment, and violence at the hands of private individuals has increased. I fear LGBTIQ people in Russia are facing a similarly growing threat.
The only possible explanation for taking this step in Russia is power. It solidifies the position of President Putin, and Russia as a blazing protector of so-called “traditional values.” LGBTIQ people are a particular target in the quest for protection of “traditional values” as we have been positioned as everything that contradicts, and even threatens, them. Making traditional values so central to his rule has ensured that President Putin has secured unquestionable support for his leadership from the Orthodox Church (in a country in which 70% identify as Orthodox), thus greatly enhancing his position of power and elevating him to an almost saint-like figure who can do no wrong. In turn, the dedication to traditional values globally has enabled President Putin to restore the image of Russia as a global leader, with allies spanning conservative states in its former sphere of influence across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as well as newer allies in parts of Latin America, Africa and the Middle-East.
Introducing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is another step in solidifying this position and his power, both with the Orthodox Church and Putin’s growing conservative global alliance. In essence, LGBTIQ people - citizens of his own country - are being used as pawns in a political game. This is callous and disgraceful, and stands in stark contrast with the most basic human rights standard - that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
- Jessica Stern is Executive Director of OutRight Action International.
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