In recent years, LGBTQ people in Russia have lived in growing fear as the Kremlin has increased measures restricting gay and transgender rights, alongside a repressive search for “internal enemies” during the war in Ukraine.
The latest threat to date is that the Justice Department will seek a court order on Thursday to declare the international gay rights movement an “extremist organization.”
Gay rights activists and other experts say a favorable ruling would expose gays and their organizations to the threat of criminal prosecution at any time for something as simple as displaying the rainbow flag or d adhere to the declaration “Gay rights are human rights. »
This prospect has increased anxiety and concern within the country’s already beleaguered gay communities.
“This is not the first time we have been targeted, but at the same time it is another blow,” said Alexander Kondakov, a Russian sociologist at University College Dublin who studies intersectionality. of law and safety for LGBTQ communities. “You’re already called foreign, bad, a source of propaganda, and now you’re called extremist – and the next step is terrorist. »
President Vladimir V. Putin has sought to portray the troubled and protracted war he unleashed as a struggle to maintain “traditional Russian values.” To this end, gay communities are often presented as a potential Trojan horse for the West. And the trial comes months before Mr. Putin uses what he calls his defense of Russian values as a pillar of his campaign for the March 2024 presidential elections.
The government, which filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court on November 17 to characterize the gay rights movement as extremist, is likely to prevail.
Although a court ruling in favor of the measure would not criminalize homosexuality and would probably not affect the daily lives of gay and transgender people, experts say, it would make the work of all LGBTQ organizations, as well as any political activity.
It could be used to impose prison sentences of six to 10 years on gay rights activists, their lawyers or others involved in any type of public effort.
The requested designation is also worded in a generally ambiguous manner, such that it could be exploited by virtually anyone to denounce a homosexual person as an extremist, such as a provincial law enforcement officer hostile to homosexuals or neighbors who covet the apartment of a homosexual couple, experts. said.
Until it is clearer how the measure is implemented, it is difficult to advise gay people in Russia about the need to change their lives, said Igor Kochetkov, founder of the Russian LGBT Network, an umbrella organization.
Critics say it’s unusual to use a designation meant to target specific organizations versus something more amorphous like an international movement. There are some precedents, however, including two national campaigns seen as encouraging violence among young people.
In addition, the Kremlin increasingly labels organizations it does not like as “extremist.” Among them are the opposition group organized by Aleksei A. Navalny; Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose presence in Russia is contested by the Russian Orthodox Church; and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which the Russian government accuses of spreading Russophobia.
In Russia, measures targeting LGBTQ groups began in earnest after 2012, when Mr. Putin returned to the presidency. In 2013, Russia passed a law banning “gay propaganda” directed at minors and expanded it in 2022 to ban anything it said amounted to endorsement of “non-traditional relationships and pedophilia.” among all Russians.
Last summer, authorities began imposing fines for what they consider propaganda in online films and TV series. Then, in July, Mr. Putin signed a law banning medical gender transitions or gender reassignment on official documents.
There is a long tradition of warring nations targeting minority groups, particularly homosexuals, for prosecution, as was the case with Nazi Germany. The effort to drum up support for war inevitably involves identifying external and internal enemies, and in Russia the generally negative attitude toward homosexuals goes hand in hand with that effort, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies the ripple effects of the war on Russian society.
A 2016 study showed that a majority of Russians “view gay minorities as a form of disease brought by the collective West,” she said.
This attitude is particularly prevalent among Russians over 65, who are also Mr Putin’s main supporters. They identify with her promise to return to the Russia of 1970, when the idea of gay rights and fluid sexuality did not exist publicly, she said.
Some Russians applauded this latest decision.
“The rainbow days are coming to an end,” sang a commenter on a channel on the Telegram messaging app, Operation Z, in reference to the war in Ukraine. It was accompanied by a clapping emoji.
Despite all these measures, Russia maintains that it does not target its gay minority. In recent weeks, Mr. Putin told a cultural forum in St. Petersburg that gay and transgender people were “part of society,” while mocking what he called a tendency in the West to award public awards only to those who celebrate homosexuality. community.
Days before the trial was announced, Deputy Justice Minister Andrei Loginov told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that in Russia “the rights of LGBT people are protected “, stating that it was necessary to “restrict public manifestations of non-traditional sexual relations or non-traditional sexual relations”. their preferences are not a form of censorship for them.
The proposed designation opens the door to the kind of legal and verbal gymnastics that the Kremlin often uses to deny that it is pursuing a sexual minority group, Ms. Arkhipova said. “They can tell everyone: we don’t prosecute homosexuals; gay people are fine – we just go after the extremists,” she said.
Milana Mazaiva reports contributed.