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European Court Condemns Russia’s Gay Propaganda Law

Ban on ‘Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual Relations’ Ruled Discriminatory

Andrei is featured in a “Washington Blade” series about Russian LGBT asylum seekers in the United States, September 2014. ©2014 Andrei Nasonov
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long defended the county’s gay “propaganda” ban as a bulwark of “traditional values” against the “so-called tolerance” of the West. He has maintained the law protects children and does not discriminate.

Not so, says the European Court of Human Rights, which in a 6-to-1 decision ruled this week that the propaganda law reinforces stigma, encourages homophobia, and discriminates against a vulnerable minority – harming children in the process.

The court ordered Russia to pay the three plaintiffs a total of €43,000 (US$48,000) in damages.
Andrei staged a one-man demonstration in central Voronezh four days after the first reading of a draft law to ban “propaganda of homosexuality” in the St. Petersburg city legislature, November 2011. His poster says, “They are banning me, who is next?” ©2011 Private

The Russian government argued in the case that the ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” represents the majority view. The court dismissed this argument, saying the law is contrary to the values of equality, pluralism, and tolerance in a democratic society. And it goes against articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Russia in 1998, on freedom of expression and prohibition of discrimination.

Human Rights Watch investigated the impact of the propaganda law, which was passed in 2013 on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics. We found an increase in discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and activists. The law sends a message that LGBT people are second-class citizens posing a threat to children and public morality. The recent violent attacks on gay men in Chechnya organized by local authorities is an extreme version of a view that places LGBT people outside of society and culture and portrays them as an affront to “tradition.”

The Russian activists for the rights of LGBT people who brought the case against the propaganda law publicly conveyed simple messages of social equivalence, such as “homosexuality is natural and normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality.” They had been charged under local ordinances, precursors to the federal propaganda law.

This is not the first time that the European Court has ruled against Russian attempts to push LGBT people out of the public sphere. In 2010, Russia’s argument in a case challenging its ban on Pride marches was rejected by the court on freedom of expression grounds.
Andrei with his husband, Igor, after their marriage ceremony in front of the White House in Washington, DC. ©2014 Michael Knaapen

Russia’s propaganda law has international resonance. Several countries in the region and beyond have introduced or attempted to introduce similar legislation designed to outlaw public expressions of LGBT identities.

As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia is obligated to respect and fully implement European Court rulings. This week’s ruling should put to rest the notion that the propaganda law does not discriminate. It should promptly be repealed.

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