Russia and gay rights: A student’s perspective

When one ponders civil rights issues in Russia, the thoughts that follow probably aren’t great. Russian society has struggled to properly care for particular groups throughout its history, including women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people. Even though individuals of these identities have claimed their fame in Russian history, the nation still struggles to embrace them. In my next article, I’ll delve into my experience in St. Petersburg and what I learned from my time there, but this article will focus instead on providing background on Russia and how the country has handled LGBTQ+ rights over the past few years. 

While Russia is conventionally considered a European country, what that really means and whether or not it is true from a cultural standpoint is up for debate. Russia has a long history of what is called “ostal’nost’” (остальность), which means something like “being-stuck-in-the-past-ness,” coming from the word “ostat’sya” (остаться), meaning “to remain, be left behind.” It was a motivator for Peter the Great’s reforms, which brought the nation out of the medieval times in the 18th century. It was also a motivator for the Russian Revolution in 1917, which was started to lead Russia into what was seen as the future of society before it reached the rest of the world. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the return of Russia as a prominent political figure, the Russian people have had somewhat of an identity crisis on their hands. Russia must decide how it wants to fit in with the world around it. Does it want to be a part of Europe or does it want its own unique identity? 

Such a unique identity can take many different forms and different people see Russia as having different identities, even in terms of LGBTQ+ issues. Comparing their country with their neighbors, some Russians view Europe as being devoid of morality in its acceptance of LGBTQ+ folx, with Russia being a bastion of traditional values. The nickname “Гейропа” (geyropa) has  been popularized—coming from Европа (yevropa), meaning Europe—as a way to joke about the social progressiveness of Western countries that are notably LGBTQ+-friendly. In putting “Europe” into this category, one can see how such Russians consider their country an outlier from that social sphere. The oft-cited reason for the aforementioned “absence of morality” is because of how LGBTQ+ lifestyles purportedly defy traditional family values. In fact, a Russian law in 2013 banned the distribution of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors, in order to protect these values and the family institution. Though protested by internal LGBTQ+ rights groups and externally by human rights organizations, the law nevertheless passed almost unanimously, with one party abstaining. 

Though it certainly seems that there is more opposition to LGBTQ+ people in Russia than support, there is a rising movement for equality. Several organizations have cropped up in the past few years that actively fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and the younger generation is less critical of those who stray from the standard. Organizations like Выход (“Coming Out”), Действие (“Action”) and Дети-404 (“Children-404”) seek to make LGBTQ+ folx seen, heard and understood in the Russian world through community conversations, support groups for parents of LGBTQ+ youth, flash mobs and protests and other such activities. Additionally, urban dwellers, especially those who are young, have been increasingly tolerant of non-heteronormative individuals. In my own experience questioning St. Petersburg residents on this topic, most were not bothered by LGBTQ+ people and  even thought that the homophobia in Russia was shameful. Admittedly, my sample size was limited, but talking to other young Russians of various origins has indicated a similar pattern.

While Russia’s standing with people of LGBTQ+ identities is generally not positive, there is certainly hope for the future. More ought to be said about this topic. However, this is only a succinct prelude to my next article, in which I will delve deeper into my own experiences in the land of the tsars, what I’ve taken away from it and where I can go with my knowledge. Until then, до скорого, Lawrentians!