Gay and Lesbian Rights: St. Petersburg About to Enter ‘Hall of Shame’

Commentary by Nikolai Alekseev
Former chief organiser of Moscow Pride and founder of GayRussia
It was written in English for UK Gay News and is 3,000 words long

After Ryazan in 2006 and Arkhangelsk, this autumn the regional parliament of St. Petersburg is considering a bill which will outlaw ‘the promotion of homosexuality, lesbianism, and transgenderism to minors’.  St. Petersburg is about to enter the hall of shame of the Russian regions which limit a fundamental human right of an individual, the right to freedom of expression.

Introduced by Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party, the bill already passed the Parliament’s Legislative Committee and there is now little chance that anything can stop it.  Of course, this bullet against LGBT people is motivated by electoral consideration and must be appreciated in the context of next December’s Parliamentary elections in the country.

This is nothing more than cheap populism to please family rights defenders, nationalists and church addicts.  Politicians in Russia cannot imitate their US counterparts by reaffirming that marriage is between a man and a woman – as our Constitutional Court has already done it, so they just found something that people will easily understand and buy before the elections.

One must understand that the issue here has no connection with advocating LGBT rights to minors.  Minors are only added here to make the law look more dramatic and necessary in the eyes of the public opinion.  The opinion would not buy this law so easily if it directly said that LGBT rights cannot be advocated in the public place.

But the trick is well found.  Because you cannot prevent minors from walking in the streets or any public place, this law means de facto that LGBT activists will not be able to organise any public events as, by definition, a public event takes place … in public.

No Gay Pride, no LGBT rights protest, no open Gay cultural festival, no LGBT film festival and no distribution of leaflets in the streets.  But that’s not all.

More worrying is that wearing a t-shirt “I am gay”, sticking a rainbow pin on a sweater or walking with rainbow balloons in the streets could also fall under this new law as it is a kind of propaganda.  How judges will interpret this law in the future, we don’t know.  What we know is what we have already experienced for the past six years: Russian judges are very creative when it turns to prevent LGBT people from organising any Pride march or other public action.  And they do not need a new law for that.

Cheap populism – this is what this law is.  Once the law is voted in the final reading, St. Petersburg will be the third region in the country to restrict the freedom of expression of those who are already, as of today, second class citizens.

Let’s put it straight.  LGBT people pay taxes, they are given the right to vote for Putin (note that if they abstain, someone will cast the vote on their behalf) but they have no right to freedom of assembly, to start a family or to be protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.  And now, little by little, region after region, LGBT people are being deprived of their right to freedom of expression.  Perhaps this is the most emblematic.

Ironically, the only right gays earned since the decriminalisation of male same sex intercourse in 1993 is the right to donate blood.  In essence, LGBT people can give to the society, whether cash or blood – or both if possible – but they don’t get anything from the society and cannot be part of it.

And most Russians are fine with this situation because, after all LGBT, people are a minority.  But the majority often forgets that it is nothing else than a patchwork of minorities.  Russia is based on the rule of the majority because the Russian society is based on the rule of the strongest.  The rich are higher than the law, the strong are first to be served in the queue.  The Muscovites enjoy better infrastructures than those in the regions.  And so on, and so forth.

To understand the reasons, those in the West or overseas must remember that Russia has never been a democracy.  Neither today nor, in the past.

In this country, you are taken seriously only if you constantly show your teeth.  If you are too kind, people will not respect you simply because they will not be impressed by you.  The basis is fear and not diplomacy.

As Russian politicians like to tell us: “Go to the Gay Parade in Berlin, but not on our sacred land”.  If you are Russian and gay, lesbian, bi or trans, you can only enjoy your human rights abroad.

And this is the problem.

Russia is not a sacred land, or if it is, then my understanding of the Constitution is wrong.  Russia is not the orthodox state that some would like to see.  Russia is a secular state where the President does not swear on the bible and where there is a separation of power between the church and the State.

In today’s Russia the attempts to re-criminalise homosexuality, or to prevent its “propaganda”, is driven by morality and religions.  And this is new.

When Stalin criminalised male same sex relations in 1934, his idea was at first to have in hands a law he could use against any of his political opponents.  His move was not conducted by personal religious believes.  But things have changed and this is scary.  Now, gays are targeted for what they are and not because they could be a way to target others.

This law is a shame for Russia and a shame for St. Petersburg, a city which aims to portray itself more liberal than the capital.

This law also proved to be un-necessary because no one attempted to organise Gay Pride events or any large scale ‘propaganda’ of LGBT rights neither in Ryazan nor in Arkhangelsk.

Perhaps we should think about who this law will really affect.  In other words, how many people this law will put at risk the day it comes into force?

I will probably be one of the first as I will not keep silent and go to protest in the streets.  But how many of us will really be charged?

Ironically, the first anti-gay law passed in Ryazan in 2006 has so far seen two individuals charged – Nikolai Baev and Irina Fet when we all went from Moscow to Ryazan to campaign against this law in 2009.  Since then, no one suffered from it.  So why is that?

This ban will target only a handful of LGBT people, simply because the LGBT community as a whole does not care about its rights.

And why is that?  Not because there are no LGBT people in these regions, but simply because most are indifferent.

Russia has a population of 143 million.  You can estimate that there are a few million of LGBT people depending if you apply a ratio of 5 or 10% but ultimately, there is not more than 50 to 100 people really active, ready to organise something across the country. Even if I add those who think that activism equates comments they left on blogs, the total number would not go much higher than 500.

When we take the streets – anywhere in Russia – we fail to attract more than 30 people.  Russian LGBTs are not American LGBTs of Harvey Milk’s time.  Keep this is mind.

Our Russian LGBT people remember about their sexual orientation when they dance in a club, drink in a bar, look around in a sauna, create their profile in a dating site or travel to Sitges, Mykonos and the Canaries, for the more wealthy. 

In every other minute, they do not need to affirm themselves.  They do not need any rights.  Their primary need whether it is eating, dating or sex has no connection with their identity.  Or at least, this is what they think.

Their lack of motivation to defend their rights is not an act of cowardice; it is an absence of long term vision.  As some start to wake up today in St. Petersburg to fight this law which will soon directly affect them, others will probably wake up when Russia re-criminalises homosexuality. Then, it will be too late.

The best proof is that the same who wake up today in St. Petersburg kept their silence when similar laws were implemented in two other regions in the past five years.

A recent incident in St. Petersburg says it all.

Marc Almond, a British gay singer was recently said during the Press Conference of a LGBT Film Festival in St. Petersburg where he appeared as a guest star, that public actions are not necessary for LGBT people.  He wanted to say that Gay Prides are not necessary.

This is a wide sentiment among LGBT people.  We do not need to appear publicly, we do not need to be out, and we do not need to show that we are just as good as others.

It’s a mistake.  And the result of such mistake can be seen today in St. Petersburg and most likely tomorrow in other regions where other politicians need to earn a bit of fame on our backs.

What Almond failed to understand is that if he returns next year to the city, he will have to show-up in a private festival and will not be able to express himself in a public press conference.

Russia is just a one-day trip for Almond who is lucky to live in the UK, a country where LGBT people enjoy a variety of rights and where everything started … in the streets during the 70’s.

Yes, it always starts in the streets.

Whether it is about gaining fundamental rights or changing regimes, it does start in the streets.

It is a pity that the previous generation of activists in Russia at the beginning of the 90’s stopped the fight after they obtained the decriminalization.  From 1994 until 2000, I have no doubt that in the state of chaos that Russia was experiencing, it would have been easy to organise pride events and pass anti-discrimination laws.  When the Parliament was still representative of the country, there were some discussions around same sex marriage.

I remember that in 2005 the gay businesses in Russia took a very negative view of our Moscow Pride campaigns and more generally, all the following LGBT rights campaigns we launched, as they thought it could weaken their position.

On our part, we knew that they would be the first to shout if the legislators were about to harm their activities ... like raising the VAT on drinks and trunks.  They would be in the streets.  But cut our rights, and they are silent.  But it does not prevent them to earn money from us and levy a “gay” premium on their prices. Yes, we have a “pink rouble”.

I remember the times and disputes when we launched the Moscow Pride campaign years ago.  They are still on-going today.  I heard at that time from some in St. Petersburg that the urgency was not to move anything.  “Don’t provoke, try to discuss with the authorities, try to negotiate, don’t sue against their decisions, and most of all be quiet!”

The same who today call for petition against this law in St. Petersburg did not take any action when Ryazan and Arkhangelsk implemented their anti-gay bills.  More, they mocked our campaign against it.  They could not believe at that time that they would be next and that their approach ‘not to provoke the authorities’ would not protect them on the long term.

Such short sighted vision of trying to seduce Putin’s government did not prevent in the past years, discussions on the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in the Parliament.

I personally never believed that discussing with a government holding a scary record on human rights and whose main recent ‘Pride’ is the invasion of Georgia, would never lead anywhere.  I never wanted to give any credit or to believe that such government can be trusted and given an opportunity of respectability.  I always thought that they should be treated for what they are.  And I did my best to contribute in showing who they are in the face of the world.

Fighting against the authorities gave us the only positive achievement of the last 17 years: the end of the MSM blood ban.  On the opposite side, discussing, negotiating and in a way, ‘sleeping’, with the authorities reached no practical result and eventually lead today to this anti-gay law.

Ironically, despite all the noise we made in the capital, an extensive media coverage (Moscow Pride is known to 52% of Russians), and despite numerous attempts to organise public actions in the last five years, Moscow has never discussed a similar move to outlaw the propaganda of homosexuality.

We know that at the Federal level, it is only thanks to the media coverage around Moscow Pride in 2009 that the Parliament rejected a similar move a week before the first Slavic Pride – as a gesture of good will.  This message is what we called the “no-no policy” or “No criminalisation – No Pride”.

But on the regional level, things are different and the Kremlin leaves the governors running their own business as long as they bring the votes needed to maintain the current regime in place.  And as the Russian daily Vedomosti published last week, the message from Kremlin this year is that Putin’s Party ordered 65% of the vote for next month’s elections.

So, all the governors have carte blanche to succeed.  And if some have to hit on the gays for that, even if it violates a few International treaties signed by the country, no one cares.  Ultimately, the European Union needs oil and gas and it will not send the troops to Russia for so little.

Joshka Fisher, a former German Foreign Affairs Ministers, explains the situation loud and clearly in the documentary Khodorkovsky: “The idea, there are human rights and we will enforce them by any means is absurd”.

The key word used by European diplomats to qualify their relationship with Russia is realpolitik.  It’s a way to acknowledge that they need Russia more than Russia needs them.  A good example is Russia’s invasion of Georgia.  Something that would have been totally impossible 10 years ago.  The EU would have not accepted seeing Russia going outside its borders.  But things changed.  And the EU and the US had to swallow it.

Fisher’s view is dishonest in a way because we know that the EU would be less patient with Lesotho, for example, than it is with Russia.  In that way, we could reformulate his view into “We try to do what we can, where we can and when we can”.

Don’t get me wrong.  If LGBT people were threatened to be sent to re-education camps, the EU would move, but before, it’s relatively unlikely.

But when Russians see that a group of us are arrested in Paris and put for one day in a police cell for peacefully ringing the door of the Russian Embassy to deliver a petition … well do you expect Russian politicians to take us seriously after that?

Another example is the European Court of Human Rights’ decision which found Russia guilty for banning Moscow Prides.  Despite the decision which is obligatory, nothing changed.  Moscow keeps banning the Pride.  The Council of Europe stays silent.

Back in St. Petersburg, if the anti-gay law is approved in its final reading, it will come into force quickly.  Individuals will face a fine of up to 4,000 roubles – and an organisation up to 40,000 roubles.  This is what we could have been subject to when we were arrested last June while staging the Slavic Gay Pride in the city.

Legally speaking, challenging this bill in Russia is a ‘no go’.  Though the law is clearly unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court in 2009 concluded the opposite view in what will remain one of the most ‘creative and artistic’ decisions in the Court's history.  This decision followed an appeal we initiated after the introduction of the first of these laws in the region of Ryazan in 2006.  The case is now lodged with the European Court of Human Rights and also with the UN Human Rights Committee.

The truth is that we are powerless.  We could be an army but instead, we are a small tribe fighting in opposite directions pursuing different goals while things are falling apart around us.

Begging the European Court of Human Rights to finally open the case, give a decision and then lobbying the Committee of Ministers to enforce it is the only legal answer we have.  A lot of work and a process which will at best last for many years.

On your side, you can send tons of letters of protests – and even paralyse the fax machine of St. Petersburg’s Parliament – it will only energise those who initiated all this process in Parliament.

You cannot be diplomatic with those who do not even respect their own words.  Russia signed international conventions that no one forced her to accept.  Either the country pulls out from these institutions, or it must respect their rules.

Hit the Russian politicians where it will be painful for them.  Ban them from entering the European Union, ban them from entering the United States, suspend Russia’s voting rights at the Council of Europe, have your government calling their Russian counterpart to protest.  This will highlight the problem.

Think what would have happen in 1962 if JFK sent a letter of protest to Khrushchev instead of organising the blockade of Cuba.  Do not forget history?

We do not have the power to ban Russian homophobes from spending their holidays in Nice, Cyprus or Spain – we could only ask the EU to close their access – and we did make the job easy by publishing the list of homophobic politicians and their resume.

We do not have the power to suspend Russia’s voting rights at the Council of Europe.  We could only ask the MPs to do it and help them by providing all the legal means for it.

As I am writing these last few lines, my plane is about to land in Arkhangelsk where I am about to defy the anti-gay law adopted here some weeks ago.

It’s gonna be a long process made of several hopeless Court hearings in Russia until it can be logged in the endless queue of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

Perhaps one day, when the Court has made up its mind, the ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ will be history.

One day.

 ■ Today (November 16) The St. Petersburg parliament, despite some protests of LGBT activists, passed the law banning ‘propaganda of homosexuality, transsexuality and paedophilia at the first reading.  No one doubts the bill’s progress will be speeded up for the two remaining readings by the parliament.  And it will be rushed into law, with much fanfare, by December 4 – election day .


Moscow Authorities Now Propose Anti Gay Bill.  The authorities in Moscow are now proposing to introduce a Bill that will outlaw the “promotion of homosexuality”, it emerged this afternoon. (UK Gay News, November 17, 2011)

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”?  By Julia Ioffe.  In a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg city parliament passed the first draft of a law that would ban what the Russian press has labeled “homosexual propaganda.”  Actually, and if we’re to be precise, the law would fine people for “public actions, aimed at propagandizing sodomy”.  (The New Yorker, November 17, 2011)