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'A Living Hell': Russia's 'Propaganda' Law Damaging LGBT Youth, HRW Finds

A rainbow ribbon tied to a crucifix is seen next to a Russian flag fluttering atop the State Hermitage Museum during an LGBT rally in St. Petersburg in August.
A rainbow ribbon tied to a crucifix is seen next to a Russian flag fluttering atop the State Hermitage Museum during an LGBT rally in St. Petersburg in August.

A leading rights watchdog has called on Russian authorities to abolish the country's law banning gay "propaganda,” arguing it is having a deeply damaging effect on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch says that the 2013 law intensified the hostility LGBT people in Russia have long suffered, and it also stifled access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services.

The 92-page report, issued on December 12, called the law a “classic example of political homophobia” that targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain.

Formally called the law “aimed at protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values,” it bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors – a reference universally understood to mean a ban on providing children with access to information about he lives of LGBT people.

However, according to Kyle Knight, a researcher at HRW, the “blatantly discriminatory” law has had the “complete opposite effect of what the proponents of the law suggested it would have.”

The law has been used to shut down online information and mental health referral services for children and has discouraged support groups and mental health professionals from working with children, Knight explained.

Knight said the law contributed to an intensification of harassment and violence against LGBT people in Russia.

“The evidence we have in our new report shows the law actually ruined some children’s lives,” Knight told RFE/RL.

Giving Homophobes Free Rein

HRW interviewed dozens of LGBT youth and mental health professionals across Russia, to examine the everyday experiences of the children in schools, home, and in public.

Diana F., a 14-year-old lesbian from the Khabarovsk region, told HRW that she felt as if the law “literally makes homophobes have free rein in our country.”

An LGBT activist stages a protest against hatred and intolerance in St. Petersburg. (file photo)
An LGBT activist stages a protest against hatred and intolerance in St. Petersburg. (file photo)

LGBT people, the teenager said, “are afraid to organize prides and demonstrations.”

According to the HRW report, the law has also been exploited by vigilante groups to attack LGBT people.

Some of the LGBT youth interviewed by HRW spoke about the authorities’ inadequate response to such assaults.

Georgy L., a 14-year-old transgender boy, explained why he was fearful: “Hazing, beatings, and undermining of LGBT teens are not taken seriously.”

“I’m sure the police will not consider a report from a teenager about being beaten, if he says that he is part of the LGBT community. Adults can safely mock us, rape us, and undermine us,” he said.

The LGBT youth interviewed for the report described being constantly on alert for harassment and violence.

Many said they confront the anguished choice of hiding their identity to protect themselves from abuse or being open about who they are and facing greater risk.

The report criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church for making “inflammatory public statements about gay people,” fueling existing anti-LGBT sentiments.

According to HRW, one high-level church official once said that same-sex relations should be “completely eliminated” from Russian society, preferably through “moral persuasion” but, if necessary, through a public referendum on re-criminalizing homosexuality.

HRW says that the law banning gay "propaganda" makes it harder for mental health professionals to offer LGBT people support.

One psychologist described how, even in situations where it is clinically relevant to discuss a child client’s sexual orientation, he feels constrained by the law: “Teenagers often wait for me to ask a direct and precise question about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, but the law prevents me from doing that.”

Another said she covers all LGBT-themed books on her office bookshelf during clinical sessions to avoid being accused of spreading gay "propaganda.”

For Some, Stigma Begins At Home

The report also says that for many LGBT children, stigma begins at home. Most of those interviewed by HRW said that it was a priority for them that their parents accept them for who they are.

However, many LGBT youth felt they could not turn to their parents for guidance and support.

An attack on gay-rights activists in Moscow (file photo)
An attack on gay-rights activists in Moscow (file photo)

“I tried to have a conversation about LGBT [issues] with my parents, but they were homophobic. And getting no support, I sort of dropped it,” said Veronika A., a 17-year-old in the Astrakhan region.

It doesn’t get much better at school. Many LGBT youth told HRW that they frequently hear anti-LGBT slurs at school from their teachers and fellow students, creating a hostile environment.

Kirill G., a 16-year-old gay boy, said, “My biology teacher knew very little of LGBT and at times spewed some nonsense about how it’s ‘against the laws of nature’ and ‘those people are sick.’ And the social-science teacher quoted the Bible and would not accept any other arguments.”

Some teachers equated being LGBT with having a disability, while others stated that LGBT people did not deserve to live, sometimes using words that could be taken as encouraging violence, the report says.

Facing such abuse, many LGBT students have left school.

Valentina D., 18, told HRW: “The school was a living hell. I always felt an atmosphere of hatred. Some teachers spoke out against LGBT people and my classmates supported them. I often faced rude insults, humiliating jokes -- harsh words that can even be called threats.

“It became so unbearable that I decided in my last year of school to transfer to self-education,” she said.

Cynical Aim

Among other recommendations, HRW has called on Russia’s Ministry of Education to establish reporting mechanisms to receive complaints of harassment, bullying, and violence, and promptly investigate and act appropriately.

It called on the Russian government to repeal the gay "propaganda” law and other laws that contain discriminatory provisions against LGBT people.

It urged Moscow to introduce legislation to protect the rights of all LGBT people, including children.

“Now, with this report, you have evidence that undermines the very theory of the law,” Knight said. “The theory that the law protects children is completely debunked with the evidence that we present here.

“The authorities should take it very seriously that this law is not achieving even its discriminatory, cynical aim,” Knight told RFE/RL.

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