Yes, It’s Worse To Be Gay in Russia

When I taught English at the American Home in Vladimir, Russia during the 2003-2004 academic year, I unabashedly brought up the issue of gay marriage in an advanced English class. In fact, I had my students read a news article on the debate surrounding the issue in the US that had been sparked by the ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that the denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry was unconstitutional.

Part of what I was doing, with the goal of getting my students to practice English and expand their vocabulary, was using the tried and true American pedagogical method of getting people to participate by (hopefully, and hopefully with respect) getting them to disagree on something. But I also wanted them to know what was going on in the wider world on this issue. I wasn’t surprised that most of my students were against same-sex marriage and that it fell largely to me to lay out the arguments for same-sex marriage.  

Although there was at least one student in my class who was under 18, no students or parents complained about my pedagogical methods in Vladimir. But if I were to do the same thing today, I could be arrested, detained for up to 15 days, deported, and fined 100 thousand rubles (a little more than $3000) to boot. Four Dutch nationals have already been arrested and deported for violating Russia’s ban on so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” and all eyes will be on Sochi as we wonder if any similar incidents will occur there.

These days, I teach interdisciplinary humanities and intellectual history courses at a Russian university, and I still push the envelope a bit. Last spring, I facilitated a heated debate about Pussy Riot in my Religion and Society class after a Russian student gave a presentation on the trial that involved her distributing copies of the lyrics of the “Punk Prayer.” That resulted, some weeks later, in a panicked phone call from an administrator asking if I had taught Pussy Riot lyrics. The incident blew over, but the ban on LGBT “propaganda” was passed at around the same time. And I would be lying if I said I haven’t become at least somewhat more careful with what I say in the classroom since.

Self-censorship is, I think, the way most LGBT Russians and their allies deal with the legal situation today. If it’s hard to find many instances of the anti-“propaganda” law being enforced in practice, everyone realizes that the potential is there. Those LGBT people who are publically out here show a heroic level of bravery. The law that passed in June—which is, I think, best explained as cheap populist scapegoating—has served to activate and embolden widespread homophobia, which seems to me to have been previously often latent (the homophobia I encountered in Vladimir 10 years ago was none too aggressive). Phenomena like “Occupy Pedophilia” have appeared on the scene. Although it’s hard to say exactly how common anti-LGBT violence is in Russia, it should be clear enough that the overall climate is far more hostile than in the West, including the United States. And that’s why I was surprised to come across the following.

According to a recent (public) post on Facebook, on his return from reporting on the legal persecution of the LGBT community in Russia, journalist and Dartmouth professor Jeff Sharlet has encountered a dismissive attitude on the part of certain American “liberals” (his scare quotes) who assert that the situation is essentially the same in most of the US as it is in Russia. To counter this view, Sharlet cites an article that describes a recent Levada Center poll

“Can you imagine only 7% of Americans opposing a law forbidding ‘gay propaganda?’” Sharlet asks. And of course he’s right that the American “liberals” downplaying the severity of the anti-LGBT climate in Russia are wrong. While I do not doubt that in some parts of the US, same-sex couples are still justifiably afraid to hold hands in public, a country in which a slim but growing majority of the population supports the right to same-sex marriage is clearly not the same as a country in which a majority of the population either definitely supports or leans toward supporting a nationwide “don’t say gay” law. 

According to the Levada Center poll, which asked Russians about a series of recently passed authoritarian laws infringing on rights officially guaranteed by the Russian constitution, only 59% of the respondents were aware of the law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors before being informed about it by the pollsters. That low level of information aside (it was actually higher than for any of the other laws), there’s no doubt that homophobia in Russia is frighteningly widespread.

The breakdown with respect to approval or disapproval was as follows: 42% of respondents were definitely for the law, with another 25% leaning that way. Only 5% of respondents were leaning against the law, while a paltry 2% were definitely against it. 26% were undecided. Even more disturbing: respondents aged 25-39 were reportedly one of the strongest demographics in support of the law (along with workers and residents of cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 people), although we might see a glimmer of hope in the fact that respondents aged 18-24 were much less supportive of the law, along with residents of Moscow. (Specific percentages for these demographics were not in the publicly available Levada Center write-up, so we’ll have to make do with these generalities.) 

I’m not sure what might motivate American “liberals” to dismiss what’s happening in Russia. For my own part, I’m more likely to encounter this sort of false equivalence from socially liberal Russians. I reside in Moscow these days, and most of the Russians I know to any degree of depth have no problem with same-sex relationships—and this includes at least one intellectual who supports the Putin regime and United Russia in general. These Russians can sometimes be surprised by the results of public opinion polls such as the one described above. Loving their country without being nationalists, they may to some extent resist facing how poorly Russia still performs internationally in a number of important respects—not least LGBT rights. 

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that the US is far from perfect, and I am ready to criticize many of its policies. I suppose that it is precisely this readiness, this desire many of us have to show that we are open-minded and fair, that represents one key psychological source of the temptation to engage in false equivalence. The fact remains, however, that the distortions resulting from false equivalence can be just as damaging in international comparisons as in domestic politics.

The American LGBT community and its allies can continue to fight for improved conditions in the US while recognizing that the current conditions in Russia are substantially worse than those in the US. Meanwhile, careless statements to the effect that things in Russia are comparatively not so bad can only serve to damage the prospects for improved conditions for the Russian LGBT community.