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Russia's LGBT Community Braces For More Persecution As Duma Readies Stricter Propaganda Law

People take part in a gay pride rally in St. Petersburg in 2017. Activists say that the new law, which puts LGBT activism on par with inciting violence or distributing pornography, is being used to distract Russians from the war in Ukraine.

Anna Kosvinitseva is a web designer in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan who has been working mostly from home for the past few years. She says she has experienced numerous unpleasant encounters because of her sexual orientation and now ventures out in public as rarely as possible.

Like many in Russia's LGBT community, Kosvinitseva is worried about a new initiative wending its way through the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, that would make the country's 2013 law against distributing information about so-called nontraditional lifestyles among minors significantly harsher.

"Most likely, a mass migration of sexual minorities out of the country will begin," she said when asked what would happen if the harsher law is adopted. "In fact, our safety and our opportunities to leave the country at all might be in jeopardy. After all, we can't expect help from anyone. We are quite simply being forbidden to love and be loved."

Russia's controversial so-called gay propaganda law has been in effect for nearly a decade. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in 2018 that the law increased the social hostility that sexual minorities have long experienced in Russia, calling the law a classic example of political homophobia.

"The law interferes with [the] ability to offer honest, scientifically accurate, and open counseling services," HRW wrote.

Now the Duma is processing amendments to the 2013 law that would ban the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" entirely. It would authorize the blocking of Internet resources that cover LGBT topics and ban films that the government interprets as containing such propaganda. Under the proposal, information about "nontraditional lifestyles" or "the rejection of family values" would be legally on par with pornography, promoting violence, or encouraging racial, ethnic, or religious enmity.

"We propose to fully extend the ban on that sort of propaganda among audiences of all ages -- offline, media outlets, the Internet, social media, as well as in cinemas," Aleksandr Khinshtein, chairman of the Duma's committee on information policy, wrote on Telegram, adding that his committee had proposed stricter punishment for violations of the law, as well.

Khinshtein also urged the public to send him suggestions for further "legislative steps in this direction" and said he considers the matter "particularly important not only as the chairman of a major Duma committee but also as the father of two sons."

Although the amendments are still at the committee level, analysts told RFE/RL it is likely that some form of the changes will be adopted when the Duma reconvenes in the fall.

"Such a measure until very recently seemed unimaginable," said Aleksei Kuroptev, a legal consultant for the Moscow Community Center. "But now, anything is possible. If you want my personal opinion, they are looking for ideological support for their confrontation with the West. When people ask why we have such bad relations with the West, they can answer, 'We are people with different values.'"

Vsevolod Galkin, a photographer and former art director of the magazine Kvir, argued that the authorities are trying to use what he called a culture war targeting gays to distract attention from the problematic war in Ukraine.

"There have been no clear successes in the war, so they are trying to switch the public discussion toward something scandalous, explosive," he told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "This isn't the first time this has happened. It comes along every seven years or so."

Feminist and LGBT activist Alla Chikinda agreed.

"This is being done so that people will think less about what is happening now in Ukraine and in Russia because of events in Ukraine," she said. "It is a very clever distraction maneuver."

It is a tactic, however, that is fraught with dangerous consequences for Russia's beleaguered LGBT community and its allies, Chikinda added. Publicly outspoken LGBT people will likely become more muted, and those who have not come out will be unlikely to do so.

Sergei Alekseyenko, an activist with the Russian LGBT Network from Murmansk, said that in 2021 his organization's hotline received 28,000 calls. The network also received over 5,200 appeals for help via social media, 330 requests for legal assistance, and 1,200 requests for psychological counseling. Requests for legal aid, he said, covered myriad issues from workplace discrimination to the refusal of law enforcement to investigate homophobic crimes.

The Russian LGBT Network, along with many other LGBT aid groups, has been placed on the Russian government's list of foreign agent organizations.

"About one-quarter of our activists have 'relocated,'" Alekseyenko said, meaning that they had left Russia. "We are talking about dozens of people. Many of them are from the North Caucasus and they left for Armenia or Georgia, Eastern Europe, or even Central Asia."

He said that in predominantly Muslim, socially conservative Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan "it is safer today than it is in Russia."

Mirona Rozanova, who works with the North Caucasus-based LGBT aid group CK SOS, says the new law will not only make it impossible to provide assistance to members of the LGBT community but will actually place them outside the framework of the law.

"They are creating a legal arena in which LGBTs cannot speak out about the problems of homophobia," Rozanova said. "In Chechnya, gays are being murdered, illegally detained, extorted. All this is happening at a quasi-official level with the involvement of the security forces. We see a lot of homophobic violence in other Caucasus republics as well, including 'conversion' tactics in which they try to cure homosexuality by driving out spirits and so on."

"Not a single case has been investigated by the authorities," she said.

"This bill supports and legitimizes homophobic discourse," Kuroptev added. "It is addressed both to gays and to those who have deeply internalized homophobia. The number of cases of discrimination and violence against LGBTs will increase."

"This law is just one big nightmare," said lawyer Yulia Fedotova, who consults for an LGBT center in Nizhny Novgorod. "It is just one continuous litany of discrimination and vague norms. There is no way to tell what you might be held accountable for."

RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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    Aleksandr Pugachyov

    Aleksandr Pugachyov is a freelance correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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    Sergei Khazov-Cassia

    Sergei Khazov-Cassia is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who has focused his reporting on embezzlement and corruption in Russia's political elite.