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April 05, 2016

Calvin Klein Just Ran Afoul of the Russian Government

One thousand kilometers north of Moscow, the anti-LGBT propaganda law strikes again. Investigators in Arkhangelsk, Russia are inquiring into a complaint by local residents that Calvin Klein violated the country's ban on propaganda of "nontraditional" sexual relationships.

As part of an advertising campaign for the new fragrance CK2, the company released a commercial online featuring both heterosexual and same-sex couples. If Russian courts find that Calvin Klein ran afoul of the homophobic law, the company could be fined up one million rubles (roughly $15,000) and have its financial trading in Russia suspended for a period of time.   

In the advertisement, different couples run, swim, walk on the beach, and ride motorcycles. The heterosexual couples are shown kissing. It's flashy, it pulses along to a driving song from the Nashville band Danger Twins, and could have been filmed anywhere in the world. It's an effective ad meant to sell a product meant for anyone, men or women.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that nothing in the commercial should violate the propaganda law, and that the law is inherently discriminatory in the first place. This case originated from complainants who willingly sought out the video online. It didn't randomly appear on their television—they googled it, clicked on it, and then waited to be offended.     

This highlights perhaps the most nefarious aspect of the propaganda law. It unofficially validates pervasive homophobia in Russia, allowing bigots to become more brazen, and encourages homophobes to seek out offense.    

There have only been a handful of convictions under the law, which Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in 2013. As devastating as those cases were to the Russian LGBT community, especially its younger members, the law’s troublesome influence spreads far wider. Human rights defenders report that cases of bias-motivated violence and persecution surged since the law went into effect.

Arkhangelsk's LGBT community is acutely aware of the dangers it faces. In 2011, the regional government passed a predecessor of the federal propaganda law, becoming the second governmental body in the nation to do so. And two years later, an Arkhangelsk court became the first in Russia to convict LGBT activists for violation of the federal law.  

For Calvin Klein, who can neither be fired nor significantly fined, a guilty verdict may not mean much. But for the LGBT community in Arkhangelsk, a Calvin Klein conviction might make them even more vulnerable. After all, if a multi-million dollar company can be successfully targeted, what chance does one individual stand?