As LGBT rights advance in the United States, gays in Russia are experiencing the opposite trend: an erosion of rights and a violent backlash against those fighting for equality there.
Russian lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban the “promotion of homosexuality” to minors, leading some to urge a U.S. boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The measure passed in the Duma by a 436-0 vote margin with one abstention. Individuals would face fines of between 4,000 and 5,000 rubles ($124-$155,) and government officials would face fines of between 40,000 and 50,000 rubles ($1,241-$1,551.)
Media organizations and other groups would face a fine of up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) or suspension of their activities for up to 90 days. Foreigners could also face up to 15 days in jail and deportation.
Nikolai Alekseev of Gay Russia, an LGBT advocacy group, told the Washington Blade from Moscow on Wednesday he “was expecting” lawmakers would support the measure. He noted programs on Russian television were largely supportive of the measure – and some of its supporters publicly compared homosexuality to pedophilia.
The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, still needs to approve the bill, but observers expect it will easily pass.
President Vladimir Putin, who announced his divorce from his wife of 30 years last week, is expected to sign it into law.
“I was sure it would be passed,” Alekseev said. “It will now be signed by the president, who is very much using this fight against homosexuals in his campaign to attract voters.”
The State Department in January criticized the passage of the “promotion of homosexuality” bill on its first reading. The United Nations, Amnesty International and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among those who have also spoken out against the measure.
“Russia is trying very hard to make discrimination look respectable by calling it ‘tradition,’ but whatever term is used in the bill, it remains discrimination and a violation of the basic human rights of LGBT people,” Graeme Reid, LGBT rights program director at Human Rights Watch, said. “To try to exclude LGBT people as ‘non-traditional’ is to try and make them less than human. It is cynical, and it is dangerous.”
“This is a very sad day for the Russian LGBTI community and for Russian democracy,” Martin K. I. Christensen, co-chair of ILGA-Europe’s Executive Board, added.
The measure passed amid growing concerns over anti-LGBT violence and discrimination in the country.
Two men allegedly sodomized Vladislav Tornovoi with empty beer bottles and set his body on fire near Volgograd on May 10 after he reportedly came out to them. Reuters on June 3 reported authorities on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East said three men stabbed and trampled a gay man to death late last month before they set his car on fire with his body inside.
Russian lawmakers are also poised to ban foreign same-sex couples from adopting Russian children.
Alekseev said hundreds of skinheads and other anti-gay demonstrators confronted the few dozen LGBT protesters who kissed outside the Duma before Tuesday’s vote. He noted several of the advocates were attacked; and one of them remains in the hospital.
Alekseev said authorities arrested many of the LGBT activists and “didn’t touch any of the anti-gay protesters.”
“We’re quite used to such hostility and to such arrest,” he told the Blade.
Boycott Sochi Olympics?
HereTV.com host Jim Morrison posted a petition to the White House’s website after Tuesday’s vote that calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place in the Russian city of Sochi in February.
“For my country to participate in this is outlandish,” he told the Blade.
A Russian appeals court in March 2012 upheld a lower court ruling that blocked a group that sought to disseminate information on the Russian LGBT rights movement during the Sochi games.
Alekseev, who has appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights, noted the country will also host the 2018 World Cup.
He said economic sanctions against Russia is one way to pressure the government to improve its record on LGBT rights and other human rights issues. Alekseev added, however, the international community “should think” before it decides to participate in the Sochi Olympics and the World Cup.
“[They are] a very good opportunity to raise particular concerns,” he said. “One of the ways for many countries would be to boycott these international sporting events because they take place in a country which doesn’t respect basic human rights.”
The United States and other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before.
Cyd Zeigler, Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, described the boycott as “the biggest black eye this country has ever self-inflicted.”
“The Olympics are supposed to be apolitical,” he said, noting gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis was unable to compete because then-President Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the games. “To start playing politics by removing an opportunity for these athletes to participate — something they’ve been working for all their lives would be a disgrace.”
Blake Skjellerup, a gay short track speed skater from New Zealand who plans to compete in Sochi, said he would not support a boycott of the games.
“The Olympic games for athletes is something they dream of their whole life and spend their whole life working for,” he told the Blade during an interview on Tuesday night from Calgary where he continues to train. “To have that swept away from underneath you is pretty shocking.”
Gay gymnast Josh Dixon, who finished 13th at the Olympic trials ahead of last summer’s London games, said there would be “nothing more disheartening” than to “discredit the years of work put into accomplishing a goal taken away for political reasons.”
“To have that work taken away, let alone the time it took to reach such a level, would be gut-wrenching,” he told the Blade.
Zeigler and Skjellerup both said they support any athlete who decides to publicly speak out against LGBT rights abuses in Russia.
“I’ll be focusing 110 percent on my competing,” Skjellerup said. “I’m not going to tone down the sort of person that I am just because I’m in a country that has these barbaric laws that exist saying that who I am is wrong.”
The U.S. Olympic Committee did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment.