It has been twenty years since homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin. Yet instead of a celebratory commemoration of progress, the anniversary was marked this June by a new law targeting homosexual “propaganda”. Commonly referred to as the “anti-gay law”, the new legislation outlaws “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relations for minors.
But what exactly is meant by homosexual propaganda? As noted in a piece by Der Spiegel, what constitutes propaganda under the law is ambiguous. This is especially dangerous because it leaves individuals vulnerable to unpredictable and broad enforcement. Same sex public displays of affection such as handholding or kissing, gay pride parades and pride symbols could all be classified as forms of “propaganda”. In essence, the law signals the government’s desire to eliminate homosexuality from public space in Russia.
A perhaps equally dangerous consequence is the inflammatory message the law sends to Russian society that homophobia is now officially condoned by the state. According to a recent article in the Guardian, Russian gay and lesbian rights groups have already reported an increase in “homophobic vigilantism” and the number of attacks against members of the LGBT community throughout the country. A particularly sinister dimension of the problem is that homophobic Russian (and also allegedly neo-Nazi) groups are using social media to seek out potential victims. Groups such as Occupy Gerontophilia are reportedly contacting individuals online via same-sex personal ads to set up a “date”, and then brutally attacking and humiliating their victims by posting the encounter online.
While many homophobic vigilante groups predate the propaganda law, in an interview with the Guardian Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LBGT network, said these groups are now using the “anti-gay” law to justify their actions. This signals a grim new security reality for the Russian LGBT community as groups or individuals acting alone now have good reason to believe they can carry out homophobic attacks with near impunity.
In Russia, it seems then that social media is being used as a means to transcend online and physical boundaries, and create acts of physical violence with an online public record that could leave individuals vulnerable to further attacks. This manipulation of social media to carry out physical hate crimes -in addition to online hate – is a worrisome development that requires careful observation.
Unfortunately the use of social media to create acts of online-physical homophobia also contains an emerging transnational element. According to a recent post on the New York Times blog the Lede, earlier this month posters belonging to the Italian fringe far right group the National Front, were spotted around Rome with the message “Io sto con Putin” (“I stand with Putin”). The National Front’s Facebook page displays a follow up explication of support for the new legislation, stating they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin, “has taken a courageous position against the strong gay lobby, which, by widespread action, aims to almost guilt those who are not gay”.
However social media is also a powerful tool for monitoring, reporting, and challenging such instances of “hate 2.0”. In fact, according to the aforementioned Lede article, Reuters reporter Naomi O’Leary used Twitter to break the “Io sto con Putin” story. It also notes that Italian lesbian activist and politician Imma Battaglia challenged the poster campaign message via her Twitter account by urging Italians to take the posters down.
That Russia’s “anti-gay” law has become a rallying point for likeminded individuals is a problematic development further complicated by the location of the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In February 2014, Russia will host the winter games for the first time, and this will ensure an international spotlight will remain fixed on Russian politics in the coming months. While the international community is (rightly) concerned about the implications of the “anti-gay” law for its own citizens attending or competing in the Olympics, care is needed to ensure that enforcement of the law during the Olympics does not become a red herring. The law’s implications for the Russian LGBT community will continue long after the 2014 games, and continued vigilant observation of the situation will be critical. At the best of times, the Olympics can encourage excessive nationalism, and unwittingly or not, the Russian government has likely laid the groundwork for an extremely hostile environment for its LGBT citizens in the years to come.