Homophobic Legislation Threatens LGBT Community in Belarus
By Slava Bortnik
Belarus, my home country, is toying with a Russian-style “anti-propaganda” bill, potentially limiting the free expression of LGBT people. In Russia, this law is used to harass LGBT people and organizations standing up for their rights. Other countries in the region are following suit and further marginalizing their LGBT communities. Belarus may be no exception.
Last October the Belarusian House of Representatives adopted in the first reading the draft law entitled “On Amendments and Additions to Certain Laws of the Republic of Belarus (to protect children from information harmful to their health and development).” It was then sent to the president, the Council of Republic (the upper chamber of Belarusian parliament), and the Council of Ministers for suggestions and comments. The parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media was instructed to finalize the draft bill, taking into account all the proposed edits and then submit it to the House of Representatives’ eighth session (i.e. in the next few months) for its second reading.
These movements went almost completely unnoticed in Belarus. Not surprisingly, all the media attention was focused on the recently held presidential elections.
But this bill had been looming for some time. The Belarusian parliament announced that it intended to introduce a bill on “the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” in December 2013.
This prompted me and my friend Vadzim Kruk to start the campaign, “No homophobic legislation in Belarus!” In partnership with other concerned LGBTI activists, we wrote letters to the responsible government bodies throughout 2014, asking them to ensure that the new legislation would not discriminate against LGBTI people. Responding to our concerns in November 2014, Lyudmila Mikhalkova, the chair of the parliamentary commission on legislation, wrote that our recommendations would be taken into account by MPs.
On December 19, 2014, the government formally introduced the bill, which would forbid disseminating any information "discrediting the institution of family and marriage" to children. The draft bill did not mention any specific penal or criminal sanctions. By the end of the year, MP Galina Lazovskaya had started steering the legislation through its first reading in the parliament's Committee on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media.
Last February, Lazovskaya responded to our appeals and reported that the draft bill did not contain provisions for administrative or criminal liability based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
But a strange thing happened not too long ago: the text of the bill mysteriously disappeared from the National Legal Internet Portal, where it was previously published. Activists of “No homophobic legislation in Belarus!” demanded the relevant state authorities to clarify the situation. Shortly after that the text of the bill was back on the portal.
In response to further questioning, the parliament told us on January 19: “The bill is currently being prepared for the second reading and does not contain provisions for administrative or criminal liability based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”
While the bill in its current form does not contain any language that discriminates against LGBTI people, the question of how information “discrediting the institution of family and marriage” to children will be interpreted remains.
Homophobia is an entrenched problem in Belarus. Last year the international LGBT organization ILGA Europe ranked Belarus 42nd out of 49 countries for treatment of LGBT people. In a 2015 poll over 85 percent of respondents exhibited a strong negative reaction to the notion of someone in their family entering into a marriage with someone of the same sex.
Discrimination frequently manifests as violence as well, and crimes against LGBTI Belarusians receive impunity, partly due to widespread homophobic rhetoric that reaches all the way to President Lukashenko. This measure could be used as a cover for further harassment and discrimination against and already embattled LGBTI community. I am personally concerned if I would be able to talk openly about my same-sex family.
Five years ago the European Union and the United States rightfully imposed harsh sanctions on Belarus following crackdowns surrounding the 2010 presidential elections. Late last year, however, those sanctions were largely lifted following a peaceful, yet contested, election and the release of six political prisoners.
The easing of the sanctions presents an opportunity for increased engagement between the West and Lukashenko's government aimed towards increased security in the region and improvements in Belarus's human rights record. For my community the first step should be for the European Union and United States to call on Belarus to ensure that the human rights of LGBT people are respected and protected in all legislation.
Slava Bortnik is a D.C. based Belarusian human rights defender and LGBTI activist.