When Russia passed a law banning what it called “propaganda of non-traditional relationships,” it made positive discussion about LGBT relationships illegal. The official rationale for the law was to protect children. But the reality is that it hurts them. Over the past two years, Human Rights Watch has interviewed LGBT children in Russia about the law’s devastating effect on their lives. Researcher Kyle Knight spoke with Philippa Stewart about his new report and how Russia can help protect its LGBT youth from further harm.
What did the “gay propaganda” law, as it is called, actually say and what were its real-world consequences?
What it says is that you’re not allowed to share information in public, where a child might hear, about “non-traditional relationships.” This is universally understood to mean same-sex relationships, relationships with trans people, and so on.
What it does is more than slapping “offenders” with fines – it gives high-level social sanction for hating LGBT people. It gave vigilantes a sense of permission to attack LGBT people. We showed how it encouraged anti-LGBT violence in a 2014 report. When the law was being pushed through parliament people said it wasn’t anti-LGBT people, it was about protecting children, protecting traditional values. But far from protecting children, it is destroying some kids’ lives.
Is this like the ‘no promo homo’ laws in the US?
I’d say it is much more insidious because it doesn’t just affect schools. The “no promo homo” laws are laws in some US states that forbid teachers from discussing LGBT issues in class, but this is more sweeping and has a much deeper effect on LGBT youth and how they live. It has made everything worse for these children.
How far does the law go?
It covers sharing positive or helpful information about LGBT issues on the internet, it also includes broadcast – so radio and TV are out when it comes to LGBT kids seeing people like themselves represented. Teachers are scared, therapists are scared, all the normal ways a queer kid would go ask questions or find information have been at least partially – if not completely – curtailed. At one end of the scale, there’s a lot of self-censorship by people who had been trying to help these kids. At the other end, there’s outright violence and threats.
As kids told us, some people think the law makes same-sex relationships illegal. Regardless of what the law actually says, some have seen this as a permission to attack and discriminate against this minority. They interpreted it as a signal that the government’s not going to do anything to protect these people and so now we can do what we want.
What do you want people to take away from this report?
That the basic foundation this law rests on is false. This law is not protecting children, it actually ruins some kids’ lives. The point of this report was to document first-hand accounts from Russians that underscore what institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have already been saying—that the law is harmful and discriminatory.
Can you talk more about the self-censorship among adults, who would normally be able to support youth coming to terms with their LGBT identities?
We heard about teachers who would dodge questions about sexuality or gender identity in class: they’d just say “I don’t know” and move on. There was a therapist we interviewed who covered up books about sexuality in their office because they didn’t want to be accused of breaking the law. One therapist we spoke to said he could tell that teenagers would wait for him to ask a question about their sexuality, but he never did, because he was afraid of breaking the law and being reported.
These are health practitioners who are trying to provide a professional service, and they feel they have to self-censor because they are paranoid about a client being a spy, or turning them in for gay propaganda, or trolling them. You have a service that is literally there to say “hey kid, don’t hurt yourself. Don’t kill yourself: you’re perfectly normal,” who can no longer deliver that service.
These sorts of impacts are the soft fingertips of the Kremlin’s iron fist. It’s those subtle repercussions that in the five years since the law was passed, which have severely damaged the little infrastructure available to LGBT youth in need.
Some adults are actively hostile to LGBT youth. How does this affect them?
Teenagers care about what their teachers say. Schoolchildren in the report have heard their teachers call homosexuality “disgusting,” “unnatural,” and an import from Europe. Suddenly, reporting getting bullied isn’t an option, because the adult they spend their days with won’t back them up. Their grades suffer, their mental and physical health suffers, some drop out. They are just not welcomed or supported.
Are there people working in Russia to help LGBT youth?
While the gay propaganda law was being discussed in 2013, a group whose name translates as Children 404 was started because activists suspected the law would pass and they knew what the effects were going to be. They wanted to create a service that would help children who were panicking about what they saw happening around them. Don’t forget – this law was passing on a wave of hostility toward LGBT people. It passed through parliament and had a massive public approval rating.
Since then, Children 404 has become a victim of the gay propaganda law. They’ve been sued under it at least four times, and the website has been shut down so now they have to post information on social media platforms. Children 404 is trying to provide life-saving services and now it’s fighting to keep going.
What about support from parents?
A lot of the children we interviewed said their parents weren’t supportive or just didn’t understand. Parents are deluged with information telling them LGBT people are evil, or an infiltrating Western group, which is the rhetoric the media uses a lot. So then when your kid comes out to you it is understandable that you’d be terrified. Even if you don’t hate queer people you’d be terrified for your kid, or even of your kid, and have little access to information on how to help them or what is actually going on. Parents are at an enormous disadvantage. This law just completely saturated media with falsehoods and negativity that parents have to crawl their way out of while also trying to figure out what to do with their teenager.
This all has to be a massive burden for the children involved.
When you speak to them there’s just this sense of deepening isolation all the time, especially for the ones who live outside big cities. They don’t see an escape, they don’t see a point they can ever be themselves and be safe at the same time. Some of youth we spoke to told us about friends who have attempted suicide or thought about it. They go through physical abuse but there’s also mental anguish. One transgender boy said his mother checked him every time he went out to make sure he wasn’t wearing a binder to disguise his breasts. She was forcing him to look a way that caused him a deep level of unhappiness.
How do they cope?
They are just so resilient. Despite the law, the Internet has done amazing things for queer kids in Russia and all over the world. They meet people like them in this online space and it helps them navigate the hostile world they live in. Most children we interviewed were writing to us late at night when their parents were in bed, you can almost see them typing away in their rooms. They are finding role models who aren’t Russian, they are finding themselves represented in media elsewhere. Some of them spoke about romantic relationships with people they’d never physically met. That level of emotional support and connection is essential. They learn that the world they physically inhabit is not necessarily how the rest of the world works. The law is damaging and this space is shrinking for them, but they are super savvy and have found their happiness despite the barriers. I just don’t see them giving up, but we have to give them more space and not make it smaller.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law Imperils LGBT Youth