Anyone who doubts that LGBTQI+ rights are a free expression issue should speak to Sergei Alekseenko.
Alekseenko was a director of Maximum, a Russian NGO that used to offer legal and psychological support to LGBTQI+ people in Murmansk. In 2015, he posted a 19th century poem about two male lovers on Maximum's then-existent page on VKontakte - a Russian social media network. He also re-posted the following phrase: "Children! To be gay means to be a person who is brave, strong, confident, persistent, who has a sense of dignity and self-respect." The phrase was a reference to the work of another organisation that provides counselling to suicidal LGBTQI+ minors. For these posts, Alekseenko was prosecuted and convicted of promoting 'gay propaganda' online. He was fined US$1,300; Maximum was forcibly registered as a 'foreign agent' and then shut down. "To society," he said when I contacted him, "I am now a criminal."
Over 70 countries around the world have laws that curtail LGBTQI+ people's rights to free expression, free assembly, and access to information. Although Europe has generally seen some progress in achieving LGBTQI+ rights over the last two decades, the skies have recently been darkening over certain parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where legislation has been introduced with the aim of silencing LGBTQI+ voices. The Russian Federation has been leading the way.
Russia has been waging a legislative and cultural war on its LGBTQI+ community for at least the last five years. In 2013, lawmakers passed what critics often refer to as the 'gay propaganda' law; in doing so, they placed severe restrictions on the free expression rights of LGBTQI+ people and gave a tacit nod of encouragement to those who seek to persecute them. The 'gay propaganda' law is actually a handful of amendments to the federal law on the 'Protection of children from information harmful to their health and development' and the Code of Administrative Violations. The new law makes the vaguely-worded "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors" a criminal offence and provides fines of up to US $155 for individuals and US$31,000 for organisations. If, as in Alekseenko's case, this 'propaganda' is carried out online or via media outlets, the fines are much higher.
To date, there have been a small number of prosecutions under this legislation. Notable among them are: Elena Klimova, the founder of the LGBTQI+ website Deti-404, who was convicted in 2015 and fined US$1,400; Alexander Suturin, the editor-in-chief of the Molodoi Dalnevostochnik newspaper, who was fined US$1,400 in 2014 after he published a story about a teacher who had allegedly been fired for being gay; Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko, LGBTQI+ activists who were convicted in 2013 after they protested the new law in front of a children's library by holding banners that read, "Gay propaganda does not exist. People do not become gay, people are born gay."
But it isn't just about prosecutions. The 'gay propaganda' law is about fostering intolerance, and changing the way society views some of its most vulnerable members.
But it isn't just about prosecutions. The 'gay propaganda' law is about fostering intolerance, and changing the way society views some of its most vulnerable members. Russian lawmakers have been aided and abetted in their campaign against LGBTQI+ people by high profile, ostensibly non-political figures. In 2013, the TV presenter Dmitriy Kiselyov (now head of Russia Today, the government's news agency) announced on-air that gay people should be banned from donating blood and sperm and that their hearts should be burned instead of used for organ donation. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, claimed in 2016 that the rise of ISIS/Islamic State was due to the world's acceptance of homosexuality.
According to a 2015 poll conducted by state-run pollster VTsIOM, this actual propaganda is working: 80% of Russians are now against gay marriage (an increase of over 20% since 2005); 20% of Russians think that LGBTQI+ people are "dangerous" and therefore must be "isolated from society" (up from 12% in 2005); and an astonishing 41% believe that LGBTQI+ people should be persecuted by the authorities in order to "exterminate the phenomenon."
Even more alarmingly, other statistics show a reported increase in attacks on LGBTQI+ people.
Russia's homophobic law-making didn't end in 2013. In 2014, LGBTQI+ couples were banned from adopting; in 2015, transgender people were banned from driving and a draft law was introduced which, if passed, would effectively outlaw 'coming out'.
Tatiana Vinnichenko, a teacher, is chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network. Her organisation recently collaborated with other Russian LGBTQI+ groups to submit a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which details all the ways in which LGBTQI+ people are discriminated against in Russia. She told me how the recent surge in anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment had affected her own life and work.
"I regularly receive threats and insults on the Internet," she said. "I feel that my sexual orientation and my position as a civil liberties activist have made me an outcast in society. There's been persecution of LGBT teachers and university professors: dozens of teachers who don't conceal their sexual orientation have left their schools and universities - I was threatened with dismissal too. While ultra right and fundamentalist groups have been encouraged, LGBT people have become more vulnerable; our position was completely ignored when these laws were being discussed. Discrimination has driven LGBT groups underground and restricted access to information about health care."
Discrimination has driven LGBT groups underground and restricted access to information about health care.
There's another layer of difficulty on top of all this. Under Russia's 'foreign agents' law, NGOs receiving funding from abroad must register as foreign agents, a stigmatising label which suggests 'spies' in the Russian popular imagination, Many LGBTQI+ organisations fall into this classification, and it's a dangerous situation. Vinnichenko, who has been an LGBTQI+ activist for ten years, did not see it improving any time soon:
"Ten years ago, people believed in the possibility of change for the better, in the sense that people could be educated. Now, that faith has been lost. In its place is the desire to leave Russia, typical of so many young LGBT people. Those who choose to continue to live here are under constant stress due to the need to hide their orientation and gender identity, or because of the expected attacks and psychological and physical pressures."
So why is Russia on this regressive, anti-LGBTQI+ trajectory? Many activists believe that it is, essentially, a political tactic. Andrei Nekrasov, a dissident Russian film maker, and Jenny Curpen, an opposition journalist, have both said that the 'gay propaganda' law is partly an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to shore up support among his conservative, religious base. When I asked Alekseenko for his opinion, he pointed to Russia's ailing, sanction-hit economy and the government's need for scapegoats.
"Today the Russian FSB [Federal Security Service] controls everything," he said. "It uses the same methods used by the KGB in the Soviet Union. To rally the people, it is necessary to create internal and external enemies: the external enemy is the United States and the internal one is the LGBT community. [They say that] LGBT activists are paedophiles or U.S. and European agents. Blinded by such 'important' concerns, people don't see the social and economic problems: blaming the Americans and gays - it's a method of diverting people from the real issues."
To rally the people, it is necessary to create internal and external enemies: the external enemy is the United States and the internal one is the LGBT community.
Worryingly, the Russian Federation's toxic approach to LGBTQI+ issues has also been spilling over its borders, poisoning states that fall within its sphere of influence.
One of the most notable examples of this is Kyrgyzstan, where lawmakers are currently considering their own 'gay propaganda' law. "On Introducing Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Kyrgyz Republic" was introduced in the Kyrgyz parliament back in March 2014 and has since passed through two readings; another reading was proposed last year by a parliamentary subcommittee. If passed, the law (which is very similar in wording to its Russian precursor) would criminalise the "propaganda" of "non-traditional" relationships. It would also be much harsher than the Russian law, providing penalties of up to one year in prison.
It's difficult to know whether this law will eventually be passed or if it will just remain in limbo. What is not in doubt, however, is that the mere existence of the draft has given a green light (as its forerunner did in Russia) to those who want to ratchet up attacks on members of the LGBTQI+ community. There has been a reported 300% increase in homophobic violence since the legislation was introduced. The oldest LGBTQI+ organisation in Central Asia, Labrys, has recorded numerous attacks, including the firebombing of its own office in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan's LGBTQI+ community is particularly vulnerable. Homophobia is rife throughout the country. 'Corrective' rape of transgender, lesbian and bisexual women is not uncommon and gay or bisexual men who are not 'out' are frequent targets of extortion by the police.
LGBTQI+ activists and human rights defenders generally agree that there are three major forces exacerbating Kyrgyzstan's already anti-LGBTQI+ atmosphere. One of these is obviously the increasing influence of Russia in the region. Another is the government's promotion of a conservative, ethnically Kyrgyz, national identity (which interprets homosexuality as a decadent foreign import). The third is the rapidly growing interest in religion, specifically of a particularly conservative, intolerant interpretation of Islam. Dastan Kasmamytov, a member of Labrys, has direct experience of this. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published a report on homophobic violence in Kyrgyzstan, and Kasmamytov was invited to take part in the Bishkek press conference that launched the report. "[The day after the event] the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa saying that gay people must be killed," said Kasmamytov in a 2014 interview. "There were also attacks on LGBT activists [and] two anti-gay protests took place, one in front of the US embassy, blaming America."
Other former Soviet Union countries that have also followed Russia's bad example include Kazakhstan, whose draft law banning "propagandizing non-traditional sexual orientation" was rejected by the Constitutional Council in 2015. Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova have either passed or considered similar legislation.
In Kyrgyzstan, the LGBTQI+ activists I've spoken to over the years have repeatedly swung back and forth between hope and pessimism when asked if they think the country will eventually pass a 'gay propaganda' law. In Russia, where the legal situation is already much bleaker, activists may not be hopeful, but they are resilient. "Maximum may be closed," said Alekseenko, "but I'm still collaborating with our group: we're still carrying on with the same work."