*This post, written by Amy Bergquist, a staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is part of American Constitution Society’s blog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.
A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing a right to marriage equality would make headlines around the world, but the implications for the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) in other countries may be complex.
The Advocates for Human Rights collaborates with partner organizations advocating for LGBTI rights in African countries like Cameroon and Tanzania, where the governments not only criminalize consensual sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but also condone or even participate in discrimination and violence targeting LGBTI people. We know from our partners that government officials, religious leaders, celebrities and the media fuel anti-LGBTI animus by arguing that, in African culture, “homosexuality . . . is considered universally as a manifestation of moral decadence that should be fought.”
Many countries have laws on the books prohibiting sexual conduct between people of the same sex, but Cameroonian authorities aggressively enforce their country’s law; courts convict people simply for acting or dressing in a gender-non-conforming manner. Vigilante groups in Cameroon organize patrols to round up suspected violators and hand them over to the police. Violence and discrimination targeting LGBTI people are widespread.
The complexity of advocacy for LGBTI rights in the international context arises out of the false characterization, in some parts of the world, of LGBTI rights as a “western invention.” In collaboration with our partners in Cameroon, we submitted a report to Africa’s leading human rights body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, debunking this myth. In Cameroon, as in many other African countries, criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct is a legacy of the colonial era. In our report, we quote Dr. Sylvia Tamale, law professor and former dean of the law faculty of Makere University in Kampala, who explains: “There is a long history of diverse African peoples engaging in same-sex relations. . . . Ironically, it is the dominant Judeo-Christian and Arabic religions that most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely on, that are foreign imports.” Indeed, as I’ve argued at The Advocates Post, anti-gay extremists from the United States and Europe attempt to export their animus to Africa and the former Soviet Union.
A decision on marriage equality by the highest court in the United States could spur countries to adopt sweeping reactionary legislation similar to two laws adopted last year: Nigeria’s “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” which not only imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment for entering into a same-sex marriage, but also criminalizes participation in “gay clubs, societies and organisations” and public displays of affection by same-sex couples; and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which increased that country’s criminal penalties for crimes such as “aggravated homosexuality,” imposed a penalty of life imprisonment for any person “purport[ing] to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex,” and imposed a punishment of up to seven years imprisonment for any person or institution conducting a same-sex marriage. (Uganda’s law was later struck down on a procedural technicality.) Our partners in Tanzania are already reporting that their parliament is considering a law similar to Uganda’s.
When the U.S. Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, some foreign courts will, without a doubt, cite the opinion ― or the dissent ― as they address challenges to laws prohibiting marriage equality. (Courts in countries with common-law traditions, including Fiji, Hong Kong and India, have cited Lawrence v. Texas in assessing domestic laws prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct.)
In the international context, however, marriage equality is not the end of the road but just one component of a complex set of efforts to ensure equal rights for LGBTI persons throughout the world. In 2006, for example, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to recognize a right to marriage equality. Yet nine years on, anti-LGBTI violence in South Africa is still common. Photojournalist Clare Carter recently documented the practice of “corrective rape” ― oftentimes with the collusion of the victim’s family ― intended to “cure” lesbians and transgender men. The South African government has only recently stepped up efforts to respond to widespread violence targeting LGBTI people. To achieve lasting change, advocates for LGBTI rights around the world need to develop strategies that take into account the local context. The Advocates recently published a toolkit of resources to help.
The African Commission, in an official concluding statement about Cameroon’s human rights record, recently urged Cameroonian authorities to “[t]ake appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.” For our partners, these words offer more promise for advancing LGBTI rights in Africa than any ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ever could.
Last month, Cameroonian human rights defender Alice Nkom traveled to London with a plea: “I need everyone because right now, I am a little isolated. It’s on occasions like this that we must show we are one, united, universal in this fight.” Nkom, who is in her 70s and was the first woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, is one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who represents people who are charged with violating the country’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct.
The Advocates for Human Rights has been working with Nkom and other human rights defenders to advance the rights of LGBTI persons in Cameroon. And, in part because of this collaborative advocacy, Africa’s leading human rights body has joined the fight against LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon.
The Advocates and Cameroonian partners report on LGBTI discrimination in Cameroon
In 2013, after meeting with Nkom in Douala, The Advocates for Human Rights partnered with Nkom’s organizations, the Association for the Defence of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) and the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), along with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), to submit a 45-page report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its periodic review of Cameroon’s human rights record. The report details violations of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, demonstrating how the Government of Cameroon is violating its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
African Commission responds, urging Cameroon to protect and promote tolerance of sexual minorities
“The judicial harassment, offences against life and other violations of rights of human rights defenders, in particular the rights of defenders working in the area of sexual orientation;” and
“The discrimination, stigma and violation of the right to life and physical and mental integrity of individuals based on their sexual orientation.”
The African Commission urges Cameroonian authorities to “Take appropriate measures to ensure the safety and physical integrity of all persons irrespective of their sexual orientation and maintain an atmosphere of tolerance towards sexual minorities in the country.”
LGBTI Cameroonians and their advocates continue to face pervasive violence and discrimination
As the African Commission’s concerns suggest, people in Cameroon face pervasive violence and discrimination based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination extends to human rights defenders like Nkom, who work on their behalf. Nkom describes conditions as “an anti-homosexual apartheid.”
As we highlighted in our report, in 2013 CAMFAIDS founder Eric Ohena Lembembe was discovered brutally murdered in his own apartment. Authorities have conducted a lackluster investigation into the circumstances of his death, and investigators have even attempted to intimidate his friends and family.
After Ohena Lembembe’s murder, threats against other human rights defenders escalated, with some anonymous messages simply saying, “You’re next.” “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” observed Nkom. “Because many died for us to be free today—free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”
In 2014, Roger Jean-Claude Mdede died in his home village under troubling circumstances. Mbede had notoriously been convicted in 2011 for sending a man a text message saying “I’ve fallen in love with you.” Nkom and Michel Togué, the other Cameroonian lawyer who takes on these cases, secured Mbede’s release.
But Mbede faced serious health problems. And the notoriety of Mbede’s case meant escalating persecution; he was physically assaulted by four unknown men near the university where he studied. Local and international efforts to get Mbede out of Cameroon failed. Mbede returned to his village in ill health, and some people close to him say that his family thought he was cursed and held him in the village against his will until he died.
Nkom takes case to Cameroon’s Supreme Court
Nkom is taking Mbede’s case to the Supreme Court of Cameroon, challenging the constitutionality of the country’s prohibition on same-sex relations. The Constitution of Cameroon includes and incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The constitution further states that “duly approved and ratified treaties and international agreements,” including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, shall “override national laws.”
When we first met with Nkom back in 2013, we discussed ways that The Advocates and its volunteers could collaborate on Mbede’s case and in placing pressure on Cameroonian authorities to respect the rights of LGBTI people. Our report to the African Commission was one such strategy. The African Commission’s call for Cameroonian authorities to take action to end persecution and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a positive sign of change. Now the the Supreme Court of Cameroon must pay careful attention to the African Commission’s words when it hears Mbede’s case. At The Advocates for Human Rights, we will be watching closely.
Because, in the words of Alice Nkom, “[W]e are one, united, universal in this fight.”
Read more about the global movement for LGBTI rights:
It’s a bright and shiny day in Minnesota, with the temperature working its way into the 70s for the first time in months. It’s a bright and shiny day, too, because Governor Mark Dayton will sign the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act at a ceremony on the State Capitol steps at four o’clock this afternoon.
The bullying prevention bill arrived on Governor Dayton’s desk this morning, after vigorous debate in the Minnesota House and Senate and thanks to the more than 100 groups that rallied to support the bill.
“We talk about this [bill] being about anti-bullying, and it is. It’s also about positioning Minnesota as a leader in the next generation of education reform,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Minnesota House, as reported this morning by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
After the Governor signs the bill, its political moment will be over. But, this is when the act’s language will meet its real challenges: daily routines and everyday realities. Boisterous and chaotic hallways, lunchrooms, and playgrounds, where small actions can go undetected; quiet locker rooms after most of the kids have gone home; corners of classrooms as teachers help other students; and the lightening-fast expanse of social media, where dozens of kids in any given school are about to post a comment or photo.
We all know that there is work to be done in order to ensure safety in these commonplace interactions and to help students do what is difficult even for adults— to show others respect and to speak up when someone is the target of injustice.
I have worked with many teachers over the years who wanted to learn more about human rights education in order to provide the knowledge, skills, and values that empower young people to stand up, empathize with others, make good decisions, and ultimately create safe spaces and positive environments. They know that such instruction needs to be explicit.
So, too, do our laws. Administrators, teachers, and students need clear guidance and protection. Fortunately, the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act will help meet this need.
Every child has the right to security of person and to an education. It will soon be time to dig in and do the work that is called for in this bill. I believe that Minnesotans are up to the challenge, and I hope that soon more students will feel safer and more secure as they go about their day.
Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is in Geneva this week for the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s review of the United States’ human rights record. She is part of a delegation coordinated by the U.S. Human Rights Network, a network of organizations and individuals working to build and strengthen a people-centered human rights movement in the United States.
After more than a year of preparation over the phone, email, and even in webinars, Bergquist and her delegation colleagues got together Sunday to finally meet face to face. “Wow what a crowd!” Bergquist said. “More than 60 of us crammed into a hotel conference room (and the adjoining hallway) for a 3-hour meeting to finalize our preparations. The room was full of energy and excitement!”
Group members spent the evening polishing 2-minute working group statements, which were delivered in a formal briefing to the Human Rights Committee on Monday. And they plotted out their additional informal briefings with the committee and side events that target a broader audience in Geneva. They have an action plan for blogging, live-tweeting, and doing other social media outreach, too.
The following post, which originally appeared on the ACLU Blog of Rights, is just one of the blog post series that network members plan to write about the U.S. review.
The review is a rare spotlight on human rights issues inside the United States, one of the few occasions where our government is forced to speak the language of human rights – rather than its usual constitutional and civil rights rhetoric – and explain its own violations. It is also attracting worldwide attention—so much so that the committee had to reserve a bigger hall to accommodate the sizable U.S. government delegation and more than 70 human rights advocates and observers who will be in attendance at the six-hour session. The entire U.S. ICCPR review will be broadcast live on UN TV and take place on March 13 and 14.
The review will shine an international spotlight on significant human rights issues in the United States: the rights of indigenous peoples, the death penalty, solitary confinement, voting rights, migrant and women’s rights, NSA surveillance and targeted killings.
The ICCPR protects basic human rights, such as freedom from torture and abuse, freedom from discrimination, the right to life and effective remedy, the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and many more. Since ratifying the treaty in 1992, the U.S. has been bound to uphold these fundamental protections and must undergo periodic reviews. The last time the United States appeared before this committee was in July 2006, when the Bush administration denied participation in numerous acts of torture while operating a web of secret CIA detentions abroad.
The ACLU submitted a shadow report to the committee highlighting examples of accountability gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current law, policy, and practice. Although the U.S. human rights record has shown marked improvement since its last review by the committee in 2006, most notably in the areas of LGBT rights and enforcement of civil rights by the Department of Justice, U.S. laws and policies remain out of step with international human rights law in many areas. In addition, the ACLU provided an update to the issues covered in our September submission to the committee, which addresses serious rights violations that have emerged in recent months. The report covers:
More than ever, the U.S. is facing an uphill battle to prove its bona fides on human rights issues. The United States is not only seen as a hypocrite, resisting demands to practice at home what it preaches abroad, it is now increasingly seen as a violator of human rights that is setting a dangerous precedent for other governments to justify and legitimize their own rights’ violations.
And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead. It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard. And I’ll admit the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account. But let’s remember: We are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity.
The ICCPR review process presents the administration with an opportunity to put President Obama’s words into action, not only in the context of privacy rights, but all other rights guaranteed by the ICCPR. This review will be the last in his term as president and will, in part, determine his human rights legacy. We look forward to briefing the committee members and observing the U.S. government review later this week, and hope that the concerns and recommendations raised by the ACLU and other groups will be meaningfully addressed by the U.S. government. The world will be watching.
While viewers across the United States watched the Olympic closing ceremonies, Jason Collins became the first publicly gay male athlete to compete in a major North American professional sports league as he took to the basketball court in Los Angeles.
NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games over the past two weeks dedicated less than two hours to LGBTI issues. It’s a critical moment in the fight for LGBTI rights in Russia.
But first–just for a moment–let’s talk hardware. Openly bisexual Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst was the most decorated competitor at the Sochi Games, with two gold and three silver medals. She’s only the eighth athlete ever to win five medals at a Winter Olympics, and with plans to compete in 2018, she’s only two medals away from the career record for female competitors at the Winter Olympics. When Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz took silver, she commented, “When you are in the media, many people maybe knew my name and also knew that I am married with a woman. And now the Olympic Games are here in Russia and . . . . I hope for the future that the people now can see the sport as a chance to change something.”
Athletes spend years training, practicing, and building strength and skills before they are ready for the Olympics. In a sense, human rights work is much the same. We have to take the long view on achieving success. LGBTI activists around the world may see the recent successes in the United States and think they happened overnight. But the first U.S. lawsuit for marriage equality was filed here in Minnesota in 1970–it took 43 years for our state to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.
What can we do to help with Russia, and other countries that do not respect LGBTI rights? It can seem overwhelming, but there are a variety of strategies that human rights advocates can use to push for reform. And each strategy can be a piece of an overall solution. But human rights victories–like Olympic athletes–don’t happen overnight.
In the run-up to the Olympics, activists suggested a variety of strategies to promote LGBTI rights in Russia: showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians, holding perpetrators of anti-LGBTI violence accountable, challenging laws in court, engaging in advocacy at the United Nations, and pressing businesses to condemn the propaganda law and send a message of tolerance.
Which strategies are best? When The Advocates for Human Rights works on human rights issues, we use a set of steps to identify effective strategies. Let’s take a look at four of those steps, and see how six strategies measure up. (And even though this post is specific to LGBTI rights in Russia, this same analysis applies to LGBTI rights in other parts of the world, or to other human rights issues.)
Step 1: Understand the context
We need to look closely at the context in which the human rights violations occur. For example, much of the anti-gay sentiment in Russia is fueled by nationalism. So direct diplomatic advocacy from other countries may backfire. For example, journalist and free expression advocate Cathal Sheerin “interviewed a number of Russian journalists, filmmakers, writers and activists,” some of whom “suggested that protests made by cultural groups, students, artists and NGOs have much more influence than demands made by governments. This is partly because Putin switches into defensive ‘Cold War Mode’ when foreign governments criticise him. Pleas made by non-governmental groups, however, are much harder to dismiss as self-interested, political machinations. And for that reason, they have more chance of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian citizens.”
But even direct collaboration with international organizations may backfire. In October, Russian authorities bugged a private strategy meeting between Russian LGBTI activists and several international human rights organizations. The state-run television channel broadcast audio from the meeting, presenting it as an expose of western “homosexualists who attempt to infiltrate our country.”
In addition, LGBTI people in Russia are vulnerable, facing discrimination, bullying, threats, and physical attacks. The first principle of human rights work is “Do no harm.” We need to make sure that our actions don’t put LGBTI Russians in more danger.
In Russia, there are additional legal considerations. Russia’s Foreign Agents law requires groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Another law bans funding from the United States that supports “political” activity by non-governmental organizations, and bans NGOs that engage in work that is “directed against Russia’s interests.” The Russian Government also recently expanded its definition of treason to potentially criminalize participation in international human rights advocacy. So groups in Russia might not be able to collaborate directly with their counterparts in other countries. The Russian groups who were victims of bugging last year fear they may now be sanctioned under the Foreign Agents law.
Step 2: Work in partnership
The Advocates for Human Rights works to promote human rights in the United States and around the world. When we do human rights work concerning other countries, we work in partnership with either local, in-country groups or with diaspora groups that want to influence human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. These partnerships are critical, because our partners understand the local context–they have a good sense of what types of strategies would be effective, and which ones might backfire. They also have a clearer understanding of the legal context in which they operate and the types of actions that may result in fines or other penalties for violating Russian law.
Step 3: Identify goals and strategies
It is important to set goals before deciding on a human rights strategy. An over-arching human rights goal might be that all LGBTI people in Russia are safe and live with dignity. We look at a variety of strategies to achieve this goal, such as:
Showing sympathy and support for LGBTI Russians
Getting the “gay propaganda” law repealed
Stopping violence and persecution based on actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity
Holding perpetrators of violence and persecution accountable
Our Discover Human Rights training addresses in greater detail how to identify goals and the steps to achieve them.
Step 4: Use tactical mapping
In looking at these goals and strategies, we need to figure out who we need to influence, such as:
Although boycotts can sometimes be powerful tools to promote human rights, but it’s important to think broadly and listen to the in-country advocates to evaluate which strategies will be most effective. Last month, The Advocates published Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities. It’s a 400+ page toolkit of resources for human rights advocacy. We developed these resources in response to requests from diaspora groups, but they are equally valuable for other individuals and groups who want to be more effective advocates for human rights. Paving Pathways explores many strategies that have been proposed for promoting LGBTI rights in Russia:
1. Showing solidarity with LGBTI Russians: When asked what people around the world can do to support LGBTI people in Russia, Дети-404 founder Elena Klimova suggested, “we are always very pleased when we receive letters and photos from abroad . . . . Then we understand that we are not alone, and that gives us strength and hope for a better future.” You can reach the Deti-404 team at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can like Дети-404 on Facebook, or set up a VK.com account and join the Дети-404 community there. If you don’t speak Russian, you can read some translated Deti-404 submissions here.
Brian Boitano, one of the openly gay Olympians who was part of the U.S. delegation to Sochi, reported that during a press conference, “[m]ost of the questions that were posed to me were about Obama’s message” in including him in the delegation. “Everywhere we went, people knew our message, and they were congratulating us,” he continued. “It was amazing: everyone in Russia knew exactly why we were there.”
“I wanted people who live abroad to hear the true story of life for LGBT teenagers from Russia,” Maryin told the Guardian. “I am an ordinary LGBT teenager, and in this country, that is incredibly dangerous.” You can follow Maryin on Twitter and send him a message of support.
“I don’t like being an activist,” journalist Elena Kostyuchenkotold a reporter. But “[i]t’s a long time until there will be some kind of magical Russian Harvey Milk who will defend my rights. I have been waiting, but he is not coming.” If you know a human rights defender or LGBTI person in Russia like Kostyuchenko who may be at risk, show them support on social media and give them a link to our Resources for Human Rights Defenders.
2. Shutting down vigilante groups: My fourth post in this series described how vigilante groups use social media to hunt down LGBTI youth and publicize their attacks. Sometimes their activities violate the terms of service of these social media providers. After inquiries from the Guardian ealier this month, В Kонтакте (VK.com) pledged to remove violent content and delete the accounts of offenders, but five days later only one video had been removed. If you use Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, or VK, report these violations and help get the groups shut down. Instagram recently pulled the accounts of two Occupy Pedophilia leaders. One activist is asking for help to use social media to track down the identity of people involved in anti-gay violence in order to prompt Russian authorities to bring charges.
3. Accountability: Russian authorities have been slow to take on the vigilante groups that are largely responsible for violence against LGBTI Russians. But last week, a Russian court sentenced three Russian men for killing and robbing several gay men in Moscow in 2012. And authorities have brought charges against at least two participants in the Occupy Pedophilia vigilante group. Advocates can work with their Russian counterparts to determine the most effective ways to encourage further prosecutions for these crimes.
There are also opportunities to hold the U.S.-based architects of Russia’s anti-LGBTI laws accountable. As I noted last week, Scott Lively is being sued under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The Center for Constitutional Rights is considering bringing a similar suit against Lively for his work in Russia.
Even though the prospects for success in Russia’s courts aren’t promising, activists first need to exhaust their remedies in their own domestic legal system before taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Paul Johnson at the University of York has done a thorough analysis of the prospects for a challenge to the propaganda law in the European Court of Human rights. The European Court is already considering a case challenging a local propaganda law, and the court has expressed interest in adding consideration of the newer federal law to that case.
5. Advocacy at the United Nations: Most of the UN human rights treaty bodies have “communications mechanisms” that individuals can use to bring a complaint alleging that their government has violated the treaty text. In 2010, Irina Fedotovna submitted a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee to challenge a local law banning “gay propaganda” in Ryazan, Russia. She had been charged under that law after displaying signs saying “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” near a secondary school. In 2012, the Human Rights Committee concluded that her conviction amounted to a violation of her rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and found that Fedotovna was entitled to compensation. Yet despite this ruling, in 2013 Russia adopted its federal propaganda law.
UN advocacy may pose risks to Russian organizations; Russian authorities have cited advocacy with the UN Committee Against Torture as evidence that the St. Petersburg anti-discrimination group Memorial is a “foreign agent.” Moreover, Russia routinely ignores the resolutions and findings of UN human rights bodies, so it’s important to weigh the potential positive effects of successful UN advocacy with potential risks and costs at the national level.
Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Over the next four years, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that the next major international sporting event in Russia takes place in a climate of safety and dignity for competitors, fans, and for all LGBTI Russians.
What will you do to promote LGBTI rights? Which strategies do you think would be most effective? How would you tailor strategies to combat LGBTI persecution in other parts of the world, like Cameroon, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Uganda? Are there in-country or diaspora partners you can work with? Will you spread the word and help build a movement to promote LGBTI rights around the world?
This post is the last in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins.Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 examined the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries.
When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:
Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”
So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.
Times have changed
When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”
Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.
Vigilante violence incited
The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.
Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (VK.com)–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.
With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:
An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.
At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.
“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”
Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity
These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games. In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”
(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)
In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”
“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon
Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:
Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.
And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.
This post is the fourth in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 2 examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins.Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.