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January 21, 2016

Homophobia in Russia is a Riddle Wrapped in a Court Case Next to a Hate Bill

In Russia, the year started with both good news and bad news for the country’s embattled LGBT community.

First, the bad. Persecution of NGOs working to defend the rights of LGBT people is as strong as ever. Last year, Russian NGO Maksimum in Murmansk came under fire for violating the country's anti-LGBT propaganda law. The offense? The group’s leader Sergei Alekseenko wrote on the organization's page on the social networking site Vkontake, "Being gay means being a brave and confident person, with dignity and self-esteem."

Then Russia's Ministry of Justice branded Maksimum a “foreign agent,” limiting its access to much-needed funds. In October Alekseenko succumbed to the pressure and closed the organization. Even though the authorities successfully shuttered the NGO, Murmansk prosecutors continued their case against Alekseenko.  

This December, well outside the statute of limitations for a propaganda law violation, prosecutors brought charges against Alekseenko and the court fined him 100,000 rubles for his social media post. Alekseenko plans to appeal the verdict, but the case nonetheless has a chilling effect on the work of LGBT organizations.

Despite the recent verdict against Alekseenko, there was an encouraging announcement from the Russian State Duma this week. The Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building rejected a bill that proposed to ban public displays of "non-traditional sexual relations, manifested in a public demonstration of personal perverted sexual preferences in public places." In lay terms, the bill sought to make it illegal for LGBT people to hold hands, hug, or kiss in public. People could’ve been imprisoned for up to 15 days for simply expressing affection.  

The bill’s cosponsor, Ivan Nikitchuk of Russia's Communist Party, said at the hearing: "[Homosexuality] is an illness on a level with drugs and alcoholism...What's more, this illness is contagious. For a young man with an unformed psyche, it represents a serious threat." 

The committee rejected the bill on procedural grounds, not substantive ones, with one member calling the bill "illiterate." Another member reportedly said the bill would have the opposite of its intended effect by increasing the profile of LGBT issues. Yet the fact that prominent members of the government opposed a homophobic bill is noteworthy.   

Hopefully the rest of 2016 will bring more rebukes to this brand of hate. But as long as cases like those against Alekseenko proceed, the Russian LGBT community won’t be holding its breath.