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Russia has been in the news rather a lot lately as a consequence of a national "anti-propaganda" law passed in June and signed by President Vladimir Putin in July. The law makes it a crime to discuss "nontraditional sexual relations," AKA sweet, sweet homo lovin'. And the result has been utter chaos across the Russian Federation, bringing a long-simmering issue to a boil.
Let's be clear here: Russia didn't just decide to go homophobic in the course of one summer. The nation has long had a history of not being terribly gay-friendly, and that's been escalating in recent years. Starting in 2006, a number of Russian regions put their own "propaganda" bans in place, limiting speech around homosexuality and gay rights. Some focused specifically on minors ("won't somebody think of the children!"), while others banned discussions of homosexuality in general, period.
So a national law was a somewhat logical, if horrifying, extension of the regional laws against open discussions of homosexuality. Violators can pay fines of up to $3,000 US -- and the average Russian income is $800 US a month.
That means no gay pride parades. It means no teachers stepping up to defend LGBQT students who are being bullied. It means no public resources for LGBQT Russian teens, except those run by daring rebels like Maxin Moiseyev. It means no public health campaigns to provide information and outreach for sexually active LGBQT people. It means homophobic statements from leading members of government.
It means home searches and seizures for prominent members of Russia's LGBQT community. And it means an escalation in the number of Russians who believe that homosexuality is unnatural and should be criminalized, even though it was only decriminalized 20 years ago.
This is really bad news for queer and questioning Russian youth. Without resources to help them explore their sexuality in a safe way, they're turning to less safe options at great personal risk, and among the adult LGBQT community, reaching out to provide mentoring is increasingly dangerous. That goes for non-Russians, too. Four Dutch tourists were recently arrested for violating the law, and Russia has warned gay athletes and tourists preparing for the 2014 Sochi Olympics (about which more in a moment) that they risk arrest too.
The United Nations has warned in the past that nations with repressive attitudes towards homosexuality tend to experience higher HIV rates and other public health problems. When you drive sexuality underground, it doesn't stop existing, it just does so in a dangerous shadow world. A world without the basics, like condoms and other simple measures to protect people from STIs. Given that Russia is already experiencing a serious HIV epidemic, the thought of making the problem worse should be serious cause for concern.
It means something else, too.
Emboldened by the law and growing public sentiment against the LGBQT community, right-wing extremists are taking homophobic campaigns to a new level. Growing numbers of Russians are seeking asylum in Canada, the US, and beyond in an attempt to get to safety from what they claim is a critically dangerous environment. Being openly gay in Russia could be increasingly dangerous, and refugees argue they should not have to be closeted in order to live safely.
But closeting may be the only option in a country where anti-gay hate crimes are escalating in both intensity and frequency. Vigilante groups are making it their personal mission to seek out and torment LGBQT Russians, some uploading videos to share their dubious accomplishments with the world.
Our priority is uncovering cases of paedophilia. But we're also against the promotion of homosexuality. And if -- along the way -- we encounter people of non-traditional sexual orientation, we can kill two birds with one stone.
That chilling quote comes from one of Russia's many motivated anti-LGBQT activists. But it's not just ordinary people who are fanning the flames of hate. Police are cooperating with neo-Nazi groups, MPs are calling for public whippings of members of the LGBQT community, paratroopers are attacking gay men and women, and much, much more. This is a case of systemic discrimination from the very top levels of government on down, something some critics suggest may be linked with influence from the Orthodox Church, which is virulently anti-LGBQT (similarly oppressive tactics are present in Greece, where the Church has a very strong role in society).
Activists have been protesting and calling for boycotts of Russian-made products, including vodka. Many are also arguing that this calls for direct pressure on the Russian government; international human rights organizations know that the most likely way to create meaningful change is to get the law repealed and pressure the government into protecting the human rights of LGBQT Russians.
Anton Krasovsky, a news personality who was fired for being gay, is calling for increased education of straight Russians and pressure on the government. He notes that with state control over major media, it's critical to speak out where and when it is possible and to organize on-the-ground work to put an end to the conspiracy of silence surrounding homosexuality. What he doesn't favor, though, are boycotts.
The situation is being exacerbated by a rapidly approaching event: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which has activists divided on the next step. As a large-scale public event, it could potentially present an ideal opportunity for putting pressure on the Russian government. But the Olympics are also supposed to be free from politics, and thus this presents an awkward situation, in some ways akin to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where everyone politely pretended that Germany wasn't ruled by a brutally fascist regime.
Some believe that athletes, sponsors, and visitors should refuse to support the games until Russia rolls back its punitive anti-gay laws. It's a tempting response, and one intended to send a clear message to the Russian government. If you throw a party and nobody comes, it most certainly makes you look bad. Others aren't so sure, arguing that instead athletes deserve a chance to compete: the Olympics create an opportunity for an international exchange of information and ideas.
And attending the Olympics doesn't rule out protest. In 2012, members of the UK Olympic Team appeared to turn their ATOS badges around during the opening ceremonies so they wouldn't be visible, which may have been a protest against the company's abusive tactics used in the assessment of disabled Britons (they claim they hid their badges because of "wind").
Likewise, John Carlos raised his hand in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Olympic supporters suggest wearing rainbow gear and other gay rights-associated insignia as a solidarity symbol, although this could put athletes at risk of arrest for violating Russia's anti-propaganda law.
It's clear that Russia's LGBQT community is at profound risk right now, and the international community needs to move carefully as it pressures the notoriously prickly Russian government. Particularly with tensions between Russia and Western allies running high over Syria, too much pressure could result in an explosive and very undesired response, one that could put even more people at risk.
Yet, inaction would leave people vulnerable. This is a situation that calls for incredible diplomatic skills, not brute force.