Explainer: Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Laws

The state of LGBT+ rights in Eastern Europe has long been cause for concern. While the majority of nations have made strides in decriminalising same-sex behaviour, Eastern Europe has been moving backwards. Under Putin’s oppressive leadership, Russia has been at the forefront of this trend, with recent expansions on ‘gay propaganda’ laws.

What are ‘Gay Propaganda’ Laws?

Russia originally enacted its ‘gay propaganda’ law back in 2013 – its official title is Federal Law No 135-FZ. At the time, the law prohibited the distribution of information about ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to minors.

The reach of Law 135-FZ enabled the suppression of pretty much any information about queer communities or issues, as well as the persecution of individuals, media organisations, and charities.

In practice, it was used to shut down LGBT+ NGOs such as the Movement for Marriage Equality, or refuse registration to others like Rainbow House. Declarations that these charities would “destroy the moral values of society” and “undermine [Russia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity…by decreasing its population” were used as justification.

Perhaps the most harmful effects of the original gay propaganda law were felt by the very minors it claimed to protect. Teachers, councillors and psychologists, and other staff who worked with young people were prevented from offering support or accurate information to queer and questioning youth by the law, for fear of retribution.

Instances of homophobic violence also rose steadily after its 130-FZ came into effect. In 2019, the brutal death of prominent LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoryevna shocked queer communities around the world.

Grigoryevna was found fatally stabbed in her apartment, after being threatened and having doxxed on the website ‘Saw’, which encouraged people to go on ‘hunts’ for LGBT+ individuals. Despite the clear homophobic motivations, Russian authorities refused to label her death a hate crime, and instead tried to blame Grigoryevna for ‘drinking with men’ that night.

Similar laws passed in Belarus in 2017, in Poland in 2018, and in Hungary last year. Gay propaganda laws were also considered in Ukraine, and are currently under appraisal in Romania. While Russia kicked the ‘gay propaganda’ trend off, it’s since spread widely across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

How has the Law Been Expanded in Russia?

The extensions to 135-FZ are demographic in essence. Where before the purpose of the law was to mitigate the exposure of minors to ‘gay propaganda’, now it includes people of all ages.

Positive or even neutral information about LGBT+ individuals and communities, and the public display of non-straight orientations, will become illegal. Noncompliance will carry heavy fines, with individuals facing fines of up to US$6,500, and organisations of up to US$81,000.

There are no exceptions made in the bill for art, scientific studies, or education. Some are left concerned for the future of literature, including Russian classics, that depict homosexual encounters.

The law has been condemned since its inception, by the UN, the European Council, and many world leaders, who have all decried it as a violation of human rights.

Any online discussion of LGBT+ topics can be blocked under the new law, and the sale of products with ‘LGBT symbols’ can be prohibited.

While homophobia has always been a cornerstone of Putin’s rhetoric, the timing of this bill is clearly connected to the war in Ukraine and the new levels of hostility between Russia and the West. ‘Non-traditional sexual relations’ are being roped into the security concern Putin is attempting to sell to his citizens.

As Dan Healy, professor of Russian history at Oxford, points out, “this war is now being fought for traditional values as much as it’s being fought against supposed Nazis who run Ukraine according to the Kremlin narrative.”

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