LGBTI in Russia: history of success, opportunities and challenges

Despite the empowerment of the LGBTI movement during the last 20 years, LGBTI people in Russia face extensive legal discrimination, widespread homophobia and even massive violence.

Two girls hug eachother during the pride 2014 in St. Petersburg
Teaser Image Caption
Pride in St. Petersburg 2014

2000s: Development of movement and public support

The LGBTI movement in Russia was on the rise in the middle of 2000-s. At that time LGBTI activists founded key organisations and launched several initiatives for defending their rights, awareness-building and researching of public opinion.

The first gay pride was organised by a GayRussia initiative in 2006 and since then it had attempted to hold gay prides every year. However every event was accompanied by counteractions from the side of neo-Nazi movements and ultra-religious groups.

At the same time due to the influence of LGBTI activists, Russian human rights organisations had started to pay attention on LGBTI issues (previously treated by them outside of human rights agenda) to work with and to include gradually in their agenda actions on defending rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Many of LGBTI organisations succeed to officially register themselves.

Held from 2008 annual film festival «Side by side» in Saint-Petersburg had an aim to create an open space for discussion and dialogue on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Since 2009 the festival has been successfully carried out in different Russian cities and largely covered in mass media.

New initiatives on the assistance for LGBTI people and clubs for parents of LGBTI children, psychological and juridical consultations for same-sex couples with children were massively launched in Russia. The first ‘Rainbow Flashmob’ held on 17th of May 2009 in 30 cities around the world was devoted to the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. This flashmob had become very mass public LGBTI event carried out all over Russia annually.

In their turn Russian sociologists noticed the decrease of homophobia in Russian society at that period. According to the public opinion poll of the Levada Center held in April of 2006, 45,3 percent of the Russian people expressed their support to statutory bar on discrimination based on sexual orientation (in 2005 this number was a little less - 42,8 percent) and 29, 2 percent of people were against this statutory bar (in 2005 their amount was 36,1 percent).

Nevertheless it was a time of first but unsuccessful attempts of legislative attacks on LGBTI rights. Member of the Russian State Duma Alexander Chuev had triply introduced a bill on criminal responsibility for “propaganda of homosexuality as a way of life”. Firstly it was refused on the formal grounds in April of 2004, secondly on the same grounds a month later and in May of 2009 it was thirdly and finally rejected.

However despite the fact that the notion of “propaganda” was not legislatively accepted and publicly considered, it had been started to use in law enforcement practice as a ground of refusal in official registration of new LGBTI organisations and ban of media publications on LGBTI issues.

2010s: LGBTI-community bloomed and homophobia escalated

In August of 2010 the Levada Center registered a decrease in tolerance of LGBTI community in Russian society. At the same time in December of 2011 a group of LGBTI activists took part in a rally ‘For Fair Elections’ which united 120 000 people in Moscow. The column with rainbow flags and anti-homophobia picket signs had become a newsmaker: all Russian federal mass media wrote about it.

Till this moment the LGBTI movement has reached its peak with appearance of regional organisations and initiative groups and formed large network communities and regularly held rallies, demonstrations, flashmobs, culture events, social researches and publications. Effective instruments of defence/self-defence, awareness-building, education and self-education were elaborated and widely applied.

It is possible that due to empowerment of LGBTI movement and enlarged experience in social and human rights work the Russian authorities had started to take steps to marginalize the LGBTI community and incite hatred against it.

In June of 2013 a bill on responsibility for ‘propaganda of homosexuality among minors’ had been adopted in second and in third final readings at once. It presumes responsibility for ‘propaganda’ in the form of a fine (from 400 000 till one million of roubles), suspension of activity of juridical persons for the term until 90 days, arrest of foreigners or stateless persons for the term till 15 days with their further expulsion from Russia.

This adoption of statute makes people offenders due to their sexual orientation and gender identity was met by waves of protest from the side of LGBTI activists and publicly expressed opposition of journalists and CS figures.

Violence towards activists, non-activists and minors increases

The adopted law opened a green signal to crimes on the ground of hatred towards LGBTI people and a new wave of homophobia. In summer of 2013 two gay men were savagely killed in different Russian regions on the grounds of their homosexuality.

A research fellow from the Levada Center Natalya Zorskaya thinks that LGBTI community is comfortable for authorities as instrument of unleashing aggression of lower classes and it is the easy target for hate which canalizes social aggression instead of previously widely spread anti-Semitism.

Rising of bullying LGBTI minors in school and in families (which sometimes drove them to suicide) was another terrible consequence of this law on ‘propaganda’. As this problem has reached disaster proportions initiatives directed to support mainly minors left without any assistance and comprehension and without information how to grasp their identity and how to communicate with environment were launched. The initiative "Children 404. LGBT teens. We exist!" launched in March of 2013 after the first reading of law on ‘propaganda’ became the first one which provided real help to children. It started with a group in the social network "Vkontakte" where its initiator Lena Klimova had published letters from LGBTI children. Later, the project turned to publish letters of support from the side of grown-ups, among them parents of LGBTI minors. Now the project is an independent website run by 6 editors.

According to information from the Levada Center, in 2013-2015 despite an apogee of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis and rise of external xenophobia which shifted majority’s attention from "internal" to "external" enemies people had not become more tolerant to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual individuals: 37 percent of the Russian people suppose that LGBT people should be medically treated and 18 percent supported an initiative on their legislative persecution.

In 2015 LGBTI network conducted monitoring and analysed main violations of LGBTI rights in several Russian regions in a report. First of all authors mention peculiarities of law enforcement practice towards LGBTI people: courts bound freedom of assembly and expression using the law on “propaganda”, as well as they interfere with their private life limiting parenting rights. LGBTI teachers are openly bullied and had to leave work. Transgender people have difficulties with receiving qualified medical assistance and protection addressing to law enforcement bodies, changing identity papers due to the absence of any direction related to this issue.

There are some groups, which hunt on gay people via dating websites and thematic groups in social networks. But LGBTI people restrain from addressing to law enforcement bodies because the police could not adequately conduct investigation of cases on discrimination and violation towards LGBTI people qualifying these actions as usual disorderly conduct and not as a crime of hatred.

Massive murders of gay men in Chechnya revealed in horrifying article of “Novaya gazeta” newspaper in April of 2017 became the most flagrant crimes against LGBTI people. “Novaya gazeta” informed that names of the three perished had been determined; it has been known about tens of arrested, tortured and subjected to blackmail people. Gay social network users in Chechnya had closed their accounts in fear of being persecuted. Russian LGBTI network opened “hotline” for those who found themselves insecure in Chechnya and now active campaign on evacuation of gay men to Europe and both North and South Americas had been started.

New wave of pressure: “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations”

New federal law "On amendments to legislative acts of the Russian Federation regarding the regulation of the activities of non-profit organisations performing the functions of a foreign agent" adopted in 2012 states that organisations receiving financing from foreign sources or conducting the so-called “political activity” have to be registered in list of “foreign agents” and report about the amount of financing and their work each six months. All key Russian LGBTI organisations were compulsorily included in this list by the Russian Ministry of Justice and were seriously fined for restraining from registration.

Adopted in 2015 the so-called law on «undesirable foreign organisations” could prohibit activity of such organisations without a court decision. The key donor organisations which provide support to Russian LGBTI initiatives were considered as “undesirable”.

This situation forces Russian LGBTI organisations as well as other non-profit organisations to seek for new ways of work: it had become comfortable to work without official registration or to register as commercial organisation which was not limited by new laws; some of these organisations had to register abroad and to work in exile. Crowdfunding and merchandising became the new sources of financing, and constant search of new sources of financing and donations is on the way. So in spite of pressure, professionalism and efficiency of work grow consequently.

While a lot of Russian people - human right defenders, journalists, activists – strive to influence internally to the situation, the LGBTI community in Russia is in extreme need of international support and external assistance: political pressure on the Russian authorities during international events, discussions on worsening of a situation with homophobia in Russia and a need of LGBTI rights defence, increasing financial assistance for LGBTI organisations, providing visas and refugee statuses for people who require evacuation. Developing communication and establishing contacts between Russian and foreign LGBTI activists are also fruitful.

This article is part of our dossier How LGBTI activists fight for their rights worldwide.