It is not a crime or punishable offence to be gay in Russia, but the LGBT+ community faces both exclusion and discrimination. Periodic outbursts of homophobic violence have also been on the rise since 2013.
The Russian federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, commonly referred to as the ‘LGBT propaganda law’ passed in 2013, prohibits distribution of information ‘raising the interest of non-traditional sexual relationships’ to under-18s.
Despite the reference to protecting minors, the law effectively sets a framework for the prosecution of any public actions of the LGBT+ community. In practice, all public events organised by the LGBT+ community face obstacles from law enforcement bodies.
These legal obstacles complement rising intolerance and homophobia amongst the general population. Opinion polls in Russia show that 77% of the population welcomed the adoption of the ‘LGBT propaganda law’. Even more alarming is that 18% of respondents stated that gay people should be persecuted and another 37% think that gay people should receive medical treatment.
The ‘anti-gay law’ has effectively legitimised violence against members of the LGBT+ community by vigilante and far-right groups. Any public expression of homosexuality or symbols of the LGBT+ rights movement became unwelcome and many gay people have since faced persecution by vigilantes reporting their sexuality to their employers and government authorities, which usually results in significant personal problems.
Cases of homophobic and far-right groups ‘hunting’ LGBT+ people on the internet and dating apps to lure them into apartments and then humiliate on video are on the rise.
The issue of homophobia has become closely tied to the political narrative of the Russian leadership where ‘traditional values’ are set in opposition with ‘western values’. Thus, homophobia has become entrenched within mainstream politics making it difficult to address simply as a problem of ignorance or lack of education.
A recent report published by the Centre for Independent Social Research shows that hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Russia have doubled in five years in the wake of a law banning ‘gay propaganda’.
The most recent report by the largest LGBT+ rights organisation in Russia, the LGBT Network, documented 366 personal stories of discrimination against LGBT+ people in Russia during 2016-17. These included 104 cases of physical violence including murders and rape. The report details stories of people being forced out of jobs as teachers or doctors after homophobic vigilantes monitoring their social media profiles wrote letters to their employers and city administrations, enforcing a climate where being gay is unwelcome and seen as reprehensible.
Minimum legal protection is offered to victims of such attacks, while hate crimes with an explicit homophobic motive are treated as a regular offence with the homophobic element often ignored.
This report doesn’t deal with the biggest story of 2017 – the torture and murders of LGBT+ people in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Violence against the LGBT+ community also often comes from football fans. On the night of June 15, 2016 in Yekaterinburg, a group of football fans reportedly upset at a result of the Russian national team attacked the gay bar ‘Mono’.
Given the background and general homophobic climate in Russian society many LGBT+ fans will be reluctant to travel and those who do may be concerned about their safety during the World Cup.
Under pressure from campaigners, both FIFA and the local organisers have sent messages of welcome for LGBT+ fans, who they say will be protected in the same way as any other fans.
At a conference on the World Cup and Minorities in Moscow in November 2017, the Russian Football Union’s anti-discrimination officer Alexey Smertin gave promises and guarantees for the safety of travelling LGBT fans and said that the rainbow flag would be allowed at stadiums during the World Cup.
Both Smertin and the Local Organising Committee head Alexey Sorokin have promised that LGBT+ fans will be safe.
The commitment to welcome LGBT+ fans at the World Cup in Russia by officials is commendable, but the temporary liberalisation for one month is unlikely to bring lasting changes to the increasingly homophobic environment in the country.