This week in St Petersburg the local legislative body came one step closer to passing a bill which would make it a prosecutable offence to promote “sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality” to minors.
Back in March 1988 the UK Government provided the precedent for this bill. It passed a law preventing local authorities from intentionally promoting homosexuality or from promoting teaching in schools about the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The provision became known as Section or Clause 28. Although no criminal offence was attached to the prohibition it was considered a significant setback for the rights of gay people in the UK. Schools became nervous about what they could and couldn’t explain to pupils.
Fifteen years later, the Labour Government repealed Section 28, and in 2009 David Cameron officially apologised for it, recognising that it was offensive to gay people. This brought to an end a long and protracted debate as a result of a law purportedly designed to protect school children from becoming aware of gay and lesbian relationships.
The remit of Russia’s own Section 28 is far wider and more dangerous. It is part of a worrying trend of homophobic laws being passed across Russia under the guise of protecting minors. The “gay propaganda” bill, as it has become known, would make it a prosecutable offence to promote “sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality” to minors. The offence would carry a fine of up to 5,000 rubles (100 GBP) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles (10,000 GBP) for organisations.
The language of the bill is so vague that it could catch anything remotely gay-positive that minors could possibly see, such as the display of a rainbow flag or wearing a T-shirt with a gay-friendly logo. Would this mean that the work of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) organisations raising awareness of suicides amongst the young LGBT population falls foul of the law? Could same-sex parents be guilty of propaganda to their children and others?
100-250 people gathered in St. Petersburg on May 17, 2009 for the International Day Against Homofobia. St Petersburg though would soon join other Russian regions including Ryazan and Arkhangelsk in hindering the promotion of homosexuality in public.
With such a provision in place, the work of LGBT organisations and pride marches would be severely hampered. There is a danger that the law would be used to justify discrimination and even violence toward the LGBT community.
The bill unanimously passed its first reading in St Petersburg in November. It passed on second reading on 8 February by a vote of 30 to 6. The third reading will be on Wednesday, and if it is approved then it could be signed into law by the St Petersburg governor.
The danger of federal legislation
The homophobic laws being promoted across Russia dangerously conflate homosexuality with the crime of paedophilia by placing the offences together under the same legislation. This risks stoking anti-gay sentiment. Already similar laws have been passed in the Russian regions of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, and just a few weeks ago in Kostroma. If the bill becomes law in St Petersburg it is likely that this could serve as a precedent for federal legislation.
Russia is not an easy country for the LGBT population. Annual pride marches garner little public support, and violent police crackdowns are common. Indeed at the December protests for fair elections in Russia, violence was reported against LGBT participants and people carrying rainbow flags. In a positive development, at the most recent rally in Moscow on 4 February, Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, was able to speak to the gathered crowds from the stage. Speaking in December, he said: "We promote equal rights and respect for human dignity for each and every one. There is nothing dangerous or immoral about that."
In the UK back in 1988, there was a wave of activism as people took to the streets to protest the introduction of Section 28, which was fiercely supported by several religious groups and various individuals. Protests in Manchester drew 15,000 people, and 20,000 campaigned on the streets of London. Section 28 became a focal point for LGBT organisations. Norway criticised the UK over the provision, and there were protests in Amsterdam and New York. However, the effects of Section 28, although damaging and discriminatory, pale into insignificance when compared with the setbacks and attacks the LGBT community will suffer in St Petersburg if this bill becomes law.
Ultimately, these laws are an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly everywhere. It is at times like this that all members of society need to speak out to protect these fundamental rights from being eroded. Hugh Williamson, the Human Rights Watch Europe and central Asia director, called the bill a “blatant attack on freedom of expression and a thinly disguised attempt to silence Russia’s LGBT community.” The international LGBT organisation AllOut.org is calling on people to contact their foreign office representatives to protest this proposed law and encourage condemnation from governments elsewhere.
Today there is a window of opportunity to act. For this bill hangs in the balance. Better to put the spotlight on St Petersburg now than to imagine a Russian President in 21 years’ time apologising for the damage done to the LGBT community by the ‘gay propaganda’ laws of the past.
Kathryn Dovey is an Alfa fellow based at Human Rights Watch, in Moscow.