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Why is Russia ramping up attacks on LGBT rights during the Ukraine invasion?

LGBT activists rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the constitution in Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia. 15 July 2020
LGBT activists rally to cancel the results of voting on amendments to the constitution in Pushkin Square in Moscow, Russia. 15 July 2020 Copyright Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Una Hajdari
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After passing a law last year banning all pro-LGBT narratives in the country, Russiais planning to launch an institute to administer "psychiatric terror" on trans individuals. How is it tied to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine?

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Russian president Vladimir Putin has authorised the creation of an institute for the “study of LGBT people” within the country’s federal psychiatric unit.

At the same time, the State Duma – Russia’s lower house of parliament – unanimously approved a bill prohibiting the change of documents and sex-change surgery to be provided for transgender individuals.

Human rights activists in Russia have sounded the alarm over this, and they warn that it could lead to individuals resorting to black market surgeries and a spike in deaths, as well as penalties and imprisonment.

While Russia has had one of the worst records when it comes to protections for the LGBT community for years, the recent slew of legislation seems to be tied to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, according to lawmakers who backed the controversial bill.

“This is another step in protecting national interests,” Pyotr Tolstoy, the Deputy Speaker of the Duma, said in an address on 14 June.

“We are implementing this because Russia has changed since the beginning of the special military operation. And those guys who today defend our country with weapons in their hands, they must return to another country, not to the one that was before the start of the [invasion],” he continued.

‘Imported Western ideology’

A common talking point among leaders in countries reversing or curtailing LGBT rights is that policies favoring these individuals are a result of an imposed Western set of values that clash with what they deem to be traditional or historic beliefs in their countries.

Leaders in Poland and Hungary, among other places, have actively propagated the claim that those who promote pro-LGBT beliefs – such as NGOs, activists or journalists – are either working for or being paid by the West to undermine the country from the inside.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
People walk past the State Duma, Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia. 14 June 2023Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

A similar sentiment was reiterated by Duma lawmakers when the recent set of bills was discussed, who claimed that “trans-friendly doctors and psychologists” do this because of the “active support of LGBT organisations” and intentionaly denigrate traditional values for “a very profitable area of medical services.”

“The Western transgender industry is trying to infiltrate our country in this way, to break the window for its multi-billion-dollar business… a number of doctors defend this field so vehemently, hiding behind their academic knowledge, including that gained abroad during studies in the U.S. and other countries.”

According to a statement by Russian Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko, Putin instructed the ministry to “create an institute for the study of social behavior of homosexual people” at the The Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry, a psychiatry hospital and research center.

“There is a presidential directive to create an additional institution at our federal psychiatry center to study not only these, but also a number of other behavioral areas, including social behavior. Therefore, this direction will be further taken in a scientific study, in addition to what we are doing today,” Murashko said.

The institute will, according to reports, lead to these individuals and campaigners becoming “more in line with reality.”

In December of last year, President Vladimir Putin signed a law on the complete ban of so-called “LGBT propaganda, pedophilia and gender reassignment”.

Bookshops have since removed LGBT content from their shelves, and gaming and streaming platforms have also followed suit.

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In several speeches Putin held since the launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the president lashed out at pro-LGBT values he perceived as being imported from Russia’s enemies in the West, and called them “pure Satanism”.

AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
People watch on a large screen as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech annexing four regions of Ukraine to Russia. 30 September 2022AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

The new law introduced fines for the dissemination of what they call propaganda among citizens of any age. Previously, a law passed in 2013 placed a limit on LGBT-friendly content being disseminated among minors.

The penalty for breaking the law is 400 thousand rubles or around €4,500.

The Serbsky Institute, where the research is supposed to take place, became infamous in the mid-20th century Soviet period for its mental and physical torture of dissidents.

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The political abused of psychiatry when so far as declaring dissidents to be mentally ill, and subjected to involuntary treatment or what has been referred to as “psychiatric terror”.

A specific diagnosis, called “sluggish schizophrenia”, was used to designate those burdened by “a struggle for justice and truth”. The employees of the institute were encouraged to collaborate with law enforcement, such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in order to “prevent revolution or bloodshed” and then mocked for eventually escaping to the West.

According to human rights activists transgenderism in particular will be deemed a “diagnosis” which means it will be treated akin to a medical condition that needs to be cured – not unlike so-called conversion centers that already operate in several countries, including some US states.

Richard Drew/AP
Protesters across the world, including in New York, opposed Putin’s attempt to whitewash the country during the 2014 Winter Olympics. 6 February 2014Richard Drew/AP

'Doctors will act against their own profession'

In an interview with The Insider, a leading independent outlet in the country, activist Nef Cellarius, said that Russian psychiatrists will now be forced to act against their own expertise.

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Cellarius is the head of Coming Out – a campaign group fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity – and lives outside of Russia himself, as do many others who are vocal on this issue.

Russia uses an outdated version of the International Classification of Disease, an international diagnostic tool for epidemiology, which lists identifying as transgender to be a diagnosis.

Transgender identification is often the result of gender dysphoria, or distress caused due to incongruence with your assigned gender at birth or socially acknowledged gender. In order to ease individuals into their preferred identification, they are given hormone replacement therapy, provided the opportunity to socialise in their desired identification and surgical interventions aimed at aligning your physical appearance with your preferred identification.

Russian doctors will, according to Cellarius, actively be acting against their own expertise in treating gender dysphoria.

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Activists have also said that defining the scope of the new research center as being focused on “social behavior” is also wrong – gender and sexual identity are not social behaviors, they are a form of self-identification.

If LGBT communities are deemed to be exhibiting behaviors that do not fit into the social norms imposed by the government, institutes such as this one will serve the primary goal of “remolding” them into those deemed acceptable.

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