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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Russia's assault on 'gay' free speech

A proposed national "gay propaganda" law threatens to silence a nascent LGBT movement.

In the past several years Russia’s LGBT community has faced pressure to stay underground from a number of sources, including the Russian Orthodox Church, an extremely homophobic institution that has grown politically prominent.

In a recent visit to Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery, the headquarters of the Church, prime minister Vladimir Putin promised the institution 3.5 billion rubles ($120 million) and said he would like to see more preaching on television. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill reciprocated by calling Putin's 12 years in power a "miracle of God."

Five regions with active gay communities have passed, or are in the process of passing, laws banning any type of gay public expression. On February 29, the city government of St. Petersburg — Russia’s second largest city and home of the country’s most prominent LGBT community — passed the “gay propaganda” law. Legislators in Moscow are considering a similar law that could become nationwide.

"They are bringing back a law from the stone age," independent activist Sergei Ilupin said.

The law equates the LGBT with pedophilia and is a huge blow to gay advocacy, activists said. Because there are no set definitions for propaganda, any action could be seen as illegal, significantly hampering activities of LGBT organizations working in its jurisdiction with fines, Ilupin said.

Activists worry that teenage suicides, which are rampant in Russia, will rise as a result of this law because gay adolescents will have even less information on what is happening to them as they come of age.

While no statistics exist on LGBT suicide in the country, Russia has the world's third-highest rate of teenage suicide. Nearly 1,500 young adults aged 15 to 19 take their own lives every year, according to UNICEF. Numerous international studies have found that suicide among LGBT teens is higher than among heterosexual teenagers.


The Russian Orthodox Church is the most vocal proponent of anti-gay legislation, and senior clergy members have repeatedly issued public statements warning that LGBT people have a corrupting influence on Russian children.

“They try to attract them [children] with the seemingly bright and happy life of these organizations,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, referring to the rainbow flag adopted by gay communities around the world.

And Russian television, a main form of media for the majority of Russians, portrays gays as hedonistic perverts, the journalist Kostyuchenko said.

“Gay parades are shown as carnivals, with feathers and g-strings,” she said. “But that’s not us. We want boring things like stamps in passports, government protection, family rights, equality in the workplace.” In a common example of recent anti-gay rhetoric, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak called promotion of homosexuality a “disgusting pastime” and in December 2011 urged passage of the “gay propaganda” law at the federal level.

Activists said that leaders from the dominant political party United Russia were trying to court the Church and avert the public’s attention from many ills plaguing the country, such as the poor state of the healthcare system and failing infrastructure before the presidential election that took place March 4.


The activist and lawyer Alekseyev, whose almost translucent eyebrows and boyish features make him look younger than his 34 years, is fighting back. Russia’s best known gay rights activist, he is as pugnacious as his campaigns are. He has been arrested 10 times and spent three days in jail.

He was pushed to activism as a law student, when Moscow State University refused his dissertation on the rights of sexual minorities. After three years of deliberation he decided the cause is worth the struggle. "It was an internal battle, I wanted to go public." Alekseyev said.

In 2005 Alekseyev met British activist Peter Tatchell at a London gay pride parade. Tatchell inspired Alekseyev to form Gay Russia, whose activism is based on direct action and fighting for judicial and constitutional rights for assembly, expression and association, he said.

"We started at zero, we had an empty field, empty space," Alekseyev said. He spends most of his time on LGBT activism, staging demonstrations, litigating in Russian and international courts, talking to media and maintaining his organization.

Alekseyev recently won a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights that fined the Moscow government 30,000 euros ($39,282) for unconstitutionally denying gay pride demonstrations for several years. However, despite the decision, Moscow continues to suppress any demonstrations for gay rights.

Alekseyev’s wild antics and PR savvy get him plenty of attention but he is seen as divisive even within the Russian LGBT activist community. Though he is regarded as a founding father of the gay rights movement in Russia, many see him as uncooperative, provocative and out of touch with the LGBT community. He has managed to get into a fight with almost every LGBT organization in Russia, activists said.

His slogans, such as “Queer Will Save the World” or “[Former Moscow Mayor Yury] Luzhkov is Gay,” have been criticized as insubstantial, sensationalist and absurd by other activists who employ more moderate tactics such as collecting signatures for petitions or offering counseling.

His relationship with a long-time partner who lives in Switzerland has also been a focus of criticism. Opponents say he is not serious about changing the situation of the LGBT in Russia because he can leave anytime. In turn, Alekseyev said other activists and organizations rose to prominence on his coattails and are now trying to eliminate him as competition.

"They say Alekseyev is a provocateur, then they try to follow me," Alekseyev said. "It’s cheap imitation."

This kind of political disunity, not uncommon within activist communities of all stripes, has recently begun to ease as independent activists and organizations rallied together in a series of anti-government mass protests that have swept Russia after alleged election fraud in the December 4 parliamentary election.

Perhaps most importantly, the protests gave LGBT advocates the opportunity to march with a much broader cross-section of the population, normalizing their status in the eyes of the people.

“We dispensed with the idea of leather pants usually associated with us,” Ilupin said. “We were united by common demands, common goals. We showed we are just ordinary people.”   

LGBT activism in Russia is the work of individuals and organizations largely without political support, said Kirill Nepomnyaschiy, a Gay Russia member who participated in the demonstration against Aeroflot with Alekseyev.

Activists stay in close contact with their counterparts abroad through email, social networks, forums and blogs, taking strength and inspiration from their counterparts abroad. U.S. activist Choi’s assault at the hands of police at the fractured pride event in Moscow last spring brought more eyes from around the world onto Russia’s crackdown on LGBT rights.

Western political pressure is rising and activists say they believe their demands will be met eventually as Russia will rise on the wave of international acceptance of LGBTs.

For now, the picture looks much different.

"One of the things that really needs to be highlighted about laws that say you can't talk about homosexuality is that they're not just a limitation of speech for LGBT people, they're a limitation for all Russians or all citizens of any country,” the State Department’s Baer said of the anti-gay propaganda law. “They are a violation of international standards of free expression."

But Russian activists said American and European political involvement in the fight for Russia’s LGBT rights is nothing more than a series of verbal declarations. Russia is a resource-rich country, and natural resources like oil and gas trump gay rights in international politics, they believe. But that has not damaged their faith in their fellow Russians, Alekseyev said. Rather, he sees homophobia as imposed by the government and the Church.

“The Russians are capable of accepting gay rights,” he said. “If it [equal rights for LGBTs] would be made legal tomorrow, people would change their minds right away.”

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