On June 30 this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," thus opening a new, dark chapter in the history of gay rights in Russia. The law caps a period of ferocious activities by the Russian government aimed at limiting the rights of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.
The violations of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights of Russia’s gay citizens have included multiple bans on gay pride parades in Moscow and other cities, hefty fines to gay rights groups accused of acting as a “foreign agent,” denial of registration to nongovernmental organizations, and regional laws banning the propaganda of homosexuality to minors, which served as a basis for the federal law enacted by Mr. Putin and unanimously passed by the State Duma. Against this backdrop, violent attacks on gays or “suspect gays” are becoming commonplace.
The state-sponsored initiatives relied on ludicrous assumptions. For example, the regional bans on propaganda of homosexuality equated same-sex relations with pedophilia even though the former has been legal since 1993 and the latter is, of course, a serious crime. The court decision denying registration to Sochi Pride House states that “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” is a direct threat to Russian society, while calling attempts to confront homophobia “extremist” because they inherently “incite social and religious hatred.” Essentially, the court ruled that gays incite hatred toward themselves and should be “protected” from doing so. The court went on to argue that such extremist activities present a threat to “Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Russian government uses these flawed arguments when it defends its discriminatory ways to an international audience. Russian diplomats are fond of saying that discrimination does not exist in Russia because the country’s constitution forbids it. Some logic!
Russia’s courts and diplomats — and President Putin — cannot be trusted to explain the status of gay rights in the country, but the European Court of Human Rights can. In April 2011, the Strasbourg court fined Russia for violating articles 11, 13, and 14 of the European Convention by banning 164 pride events and marches between 2006 and 2008. The unanimous decision in Alekseyev v. Russia came into force after the Russian government lost its appeal in Strasbourg, yet although the Kremlin paid the fine, they continued to ban pride rallies. In May 2012, a district court in Moscow issued a ruling banning such events in the city until May 2112. That’s Russia’s approach: pay the fine, admit nothing, and make things worse.
The cornerstone of Mr. Putin’s “War on Gays,” however, is the vaguely defined and definitively antigay Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses, which allows the government to fine individuals accused of the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations amongst minors. The federal ban “builds on the success” of regional laws on “propaganda of homosexualism to minors,” passed in 10 regions since 2006. We have yet to see an example of the federal law in action, though we came pretty close when four Dutch citizens were briefly detained in the northern city of Murmansk in July. Regional laws were used several times to fine gay rights activists.
Here is what Article 6.21 actually says:
Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.
If you’re Russian. Individuals engaging in such propaganda can be fined 4,000 to 5,000 rubles (120-150 USD), public officials are subject to fines of 40,000 to 50,000 rubles (1,200-1,500 USD), and registered organizations can be either fined (800,000-1,000,000 rubles or 24,000-30,000 USD) or sanctioned to stop operations for 90 days. If you engage in the said propaganda in the media or on the internet, the sliding scale of fines shifts: for individuals, 50,000 to 100,000 rubles; for public officials, 100,000 to 200,000 rubles, and for organizations, from one million rubles or a 90-day suspension.
If you’re an alien. Foreign citizens or stateless persons engaging in propaganda are subject to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, or they can be deported from the Russian Federation and/or serve 15 days in jail. If a foreigner uses the media or the internet to engage in propaganda, the fines increase to 50,000-100,000 rubles or a 15-day detention with subsequent deportation from Russia.
The law passed by the Duma is so ambiguous for a reason. Without a legal definition of ‘propaganda’ or ‘nontraditional sexual relations’ — key operative words in Article 6.21 — we are not getting a clear picture of how the authorities will use it. Ironically, the best arguments against the adoption of this the antigay legislation come from none other than the Russian government. In 2004 and 2006, the government resisted attempts to introduce similarly ambiguous federal bans on “the propaganda of homosexuality.”
On February 20, 2006, then-Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov (currently serving as a Deputy Speaker of the State Duma and the President of Russia's Olympic Committee), submitted an official recall to a tabled antigay bill, arguing that the legislation contradicted Russia's criminal code that doesn’t allow to criminalize the propaganda of noncriminal behavior, contains “a row of mistakes and judicial-technical inexactitudes,” and relies on definitions that do not allow to clearly formulate corpus delicti. The May 20, 2004, rebuttal from Mr. Zhukov was even more forthcoming, pointing out that the bill “contradicts article 29 of the Russian Constitution, as well as articles 8, 10, and 14 of the European Convention on human rights.”
I couldn’t put it better than Zhukov. Unfortunately, his resistance to the anti-gay bills of 2004 & 2006 came at a time when the Kremlin cared about Russia’s international reputation. Now it appears to care only about nontraditional sex.