Strange Bedfellows Scapegoat Russia’s Gays

It’s been a busy few months for anyone paying attention to issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia.

This summer the Russian parliament passed a bill prohibiting the so-called “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations” in the presence of minors, a euphemistic expression replacing language in the initial bill which more explicitly prohibited “the promotion of homosexual relations.” The new law gives no explicit definition of “promotion,” resulting in an environment where Russia’s mass media has curtailed any reporting that might portray LGBT people or their relationships in a positive light.

A companion law banning the international adoption of Russian children by citizens in countries that recognize same-sex unions quickly followed suit, while just three weeks ago, a Russian MP introduced a third bill calling for the removal of children from families in which one or both parents are gay.

Recent reports in the American media suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for the new rise in anti-gay sentiment. Such claims fail to take into account the wide variety of social and religious factors contributing to the situation. The past two decades have witnessed a mass exodus of the educated classes from Russia. While acceptance of gays increased in the 1990s, a recent Pew Research poll indicates that, today, 74 percent of the population believes that society should not accept homosexuality.

Religion also plays a role. When the Council of Europe recently called on Russia to protect LGBT rights, Patriarch Kirill responded that the Russian Orthodox Church must remind Russians that homosexuality is a sin before God. And Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned that the legalization of same-sex unions could lead to the fall of Western civilization within the next 50 years.

YouTube videos and Russian newscasts document the involvement of Russian Orthodox priests and parishioners bearing holy water and icons as they protest at pro-LGBT demonstrations.

Just three weeks ago in Saint Petersburg, Russian Orthodox clergy and lay activists staged prayers and liturgical chants in response to a pro-LGBT rally timed to President Obama’s meeting with Russian LGBT activists. Local police learned from an earlier confrontation in June during which Orthodox protestors physically attacked LGBT advocates and threw rotten eggs, vegetables, and rocks at their opponents. This time the police separated the two factions with barricades and a large number of officers, and the Orthodox protestors settled for throwing loose change.

Vitaly Milonov, the Saint Petersburg politician whose local anti-gay legislation has served as the model for the national law, is a Baptist-turned-Orthodox Christian. Yet, while he and some other public officials are informed by their faith commitments and the pronouncements of church officials, religion has a limited influence on Russia today. Seventy years of Soviet campaigns promoting atheism have left the country largely secular.

Another factor contributing to Russia’s anti-gay sentiment is the growth of ultra-nationalist groups that target both non-ethnic Russians and gays, blaming them for the country’s economic woes and population decline. These groups, which often conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, have posted videos on the Internet that document the harassment and sometimes torture of men whom the groups lure into traps by arranging fake sexual encounters through social networking sites. Reaction from Russian law enforcement has been muted.

Rhetoric from America’s culture wars has also found a place in Russia’s anti-gay campaign. Massachusetts-based pastor Scott Lively conducted a 50-city speaking tour of Russia in 2007 urging the criminalization of the advocacy of homosexuality. Recent right-wing media reports in the U.S. credit Lively with helping shape Russia’s new legislation.

The direct influence of U.S. rhetoric is clearly visible in the current anti-custody bill’s inclusion of data from a study published in 2012 by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Regnerus made headlines with claims that children raised by LGBT parents suffer from a raft of social adjustment issues. Though subsequently challenged by a host of researchers and the publishing journal, his study’s findings are included in an addendum to the Russian legislation.

While it’s tempting to seek a single cause for anti-LGBT sentiment in Russia, the realities on the ground confound simple explanations. Indeed, multiple interests have converged to produce the current atmosphere. There is no vast conspiracy, but rather a host of players and factors, each with a contributing role in the unfolding drama.

“7 Villains of Russia’s Gay Rights Movement (Photo Essay).” The Moscow Times, September 12, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2013.
Grekov, Inokenty (Kes). “Russia’s Anti-Gay Law, Spelled Out in Plain English.” Accessed August 8, 2013.
Agence France Presse. “Vladimir Putin Signs Russia Gay Adoption Ban.” Huffington Post, July 3, 2013.
“Russian MP moves to strip gays of parental rights.” RT, September 5, 2013. Accessed September 5, 2013.
The Global Divide on Homosexuality: Greater Acceptance in More Secular and Affluent Countries.” Pew Research, June 4, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2014.
Fierstein, Harvey. “Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown.” The New York Times, July 21, 2013. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Gessen, Masha. “When Putin Declared War on Gay Families, It Was Time for Mine to Leave Russia.” Slate, August 26, 2013. Accessed September 13, 2013.
Western countries will degrade in fifty years at the most if they don’t condemn same-sex unions: Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin.” Interfax, June 5, 2013. Accessed June 5, 2013.
MassResistance: Kissing ‘Provoked’ Violent Anti-Gay Attack in Moscow.” Right Wing Watch, June 18, 2013. Accessed September 14, 2013. (Discussion of Scott Lively’s campaign in Russia).
Schlatter, Evelyn. “Suspect ‘Science’.” Intelligence Report, 150 (Summer 2013). Accessed September 14, 2013. (Southern Poverty Law Center’s discussion of Regnerus’ study of LGBT households).

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.