In search of an “outsider”

The Russian law criminalizing “Propaganda of homosexuality” isn’t just targeting minorities. The law, and homophobia in general, tends to make real problems invisible, as well as covering the real changes in a society where a staggering number of families already can be described as “one-sex households”, writes Russian journalist Natalya Afanasyeva. 

December 16 2014 Text: Natalya Afanasyeva Translation from Russian: Amanda Love Darragh

A memorial to Steve Jobs was dismantled in St. Petersburg at the beginning of November, following a public statement made by the current CEO of Apple Inc, Tim Cook, in which he came out as gay. The monument – a two-metre-high interactive model of an iPhone, installed in the courtyard of the University of Information Technologies last year – was declared to be “homosexual propaganda”. This apparently absurd, nonsensical story in fact perfectly exemplifies the Russian attitude towards homosexuality. In essence, Russian homophobia represents the attempt of a troubled society to find something – or someone – to blame for all of its misfortunes, for the prevalence of aggression and dissatisfaction. It has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation.

In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a criminal offence punishable by law. “Sodomy” was decriminalised only in 1993, and it wasn't until 1999 that homosexuality ceased to be officially categorised as a mental illness.

Now, decades later, the belief still persists among most Russian people that there is something criminal or “perverted” about same-sex relationships. According to research carried out by the Levada Analytical Centre in February 2013, a relative majority of Russians (34 per cent) believe that homosexuality is an illness that needs to be cured. Moreover, 16 per cent of respondents perceive it to be an innate defect, while the same number believe that homosexuality is the result of external influence. Furthermore the survey found that 16 per cent of Russians believe homosexuals should be isolated from society, 27 per cent think that they should be offered psychological and other help, and 22 per cent think that they should be forced to undergo compulsory treatment.

Until recently, however, it has not been customary to air such opinions in public. Russians didn't even seem to be that interested in same-sex relationships. The subject of homosexuality became a hot topic all of a sudden in 2012, when a local law was passed in St. Petersburg banning homosexual propaganda among minors. It looked at first like a political publicity stunt and was, in this sense, something of a success: Vitaly Milonov, who introduced the law, went overnight from being an ordinary regional deputy to achieving national and international notoriety. But it soon became clear that this law, apparently so far removed from Russia's real problems, had struck a chord with the majority of the population.

According to survey data from Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 86 per cent of Russians supported the St. Petersburg law. However, only 6 per cent claimed to have encountered homosexual propaganda themselves.

I doubt that even these 6 per cent would have been able to explain exactly what they understood by the term “homosexual propaganda”. Gay-pride parades have always been banned in Russia, and no celebrities or public figures are openly gay. Sex education in schools is non-existent, and even bringing up the subject of non-traditional relationships in conversation is strictly off limits.

Nevertheless, this law prompted a number of court cases, the most high-profile of which was the lawsuit brought against the singer Madonna and her concert organisers in St. Petersburg. Madonna wore a pink wristband at the concert as a gesture of solidarity with the gay community. After thorough and extensive examination of the claims made by those seeking to defend the nation's “morality”, the court ultimately ruled against them, stating that the primary threat to the Russian family is not homosexuality, but alcohol. At this point it should have been obvious to everyone just how ludicrous this law really was. But no: other regions began to adopt similar laws, and a federal law banning “gay propaganda” was passed in June 2013.

Homosexuality has never been discussed so widely in Russia. It has eclipsed all other topics of conversation. If anyone was actually setting out to raise the profile of same-sex relationships, it would be hard to imagine a more effective strategy.

To the outside observer this may give the impression that homosexuality is the most critical problem facing Russia today and that gay people, as the main enemies of the Russian family, pose a genuine threat to stability.

Yet in answer to the question: “Do you know any gay men or lesbians?” 86 per cent of Russians said no. In other words, an overwhelming majority of those worried about homosexuality have never met a gay person in real life.

According to the same survey, 5 per cent of Russians would like to “exterminate” homosexuals. When the question was rephrased more euphemistically using the word 'eliminate', the per centage of those wishing to eradicate these perceived 'outsiders' rose to 19 per cent.[1]

The Generalised Outsider
The European Parliament resolution “Homophobia in Europe”, which was adopted on 18 January 2006, defines homophobia as “an irrational fear of and aversion to homosexuality and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, based on prejudice and similar to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and sexism”. The famous Russian sexologist Igor Kon, who dedicated a number of works to researching the specific features of Russian homophobia, also regarded irrational hostility towards the gay community as a form of xenophobia, emphasising that these phenomena are not only similar but interrelated. Both stem from fear of a “generalised outsider”, which can easily be adapted to apply to any social group. As with other phobias hostility to the “outsider”, whether this is represented by those of a different nationality or sexual orientation, is based on prejudices. Survey results show that Russians believe that homosexuality is something you “catch”: 17 per cent of Russians believe that homosexuality is the result of “seduction”, and 23 per cent believe it is the result of “poor upbringing”. Homosexuality is frequently categorised alongside paedophilia and sexual violence by politicians and in the Russian media. This has an inevitable impact: Russia has the highest number of prisoners in the world, and a similar moral code still applies in the army. Society is pervaded by an atmosphere of aggression. This widespread fear of violence, humiliation and loss of dignity is being transferred to a certain group of people simply because of their sexual orientation.

Powerless to do anything about the real problems facing Russia – the lack of legal or social security, appalling aggression, the demographic situation – society attempts to assert itself through antipathy towards others, seeking someone to “blame”. And the authorities, who ought to be taking responsibility for what is happening, obligingly conjure up a new enemy in the form of an “outsider”.

“Homosexual propaganda is rife in contemporary Russia. Both in the media and by means of direct social action this propaganda seeks to promote homosexuality as normal behaviour,” say the instigators of the controversial anti-gay law.

Skilfully manipulating people's greatest concerns, they present the main issue in the fight against homosexuality in Russia as the threat that it poses to the traditional family unit and the disintegration of family relationships.

They claim that homosexuality represents the greatest threat to the preservation and development of the multinational people of the Russian Federation. “Family, motherhood and childhood, in the traditional sense that has been passed down to us by our ancestors, represent the values that ensure the continuous succession of generations and are essential for the preservation and development of the multinational people of the Russian Federation. As such they require special protection by the government.”

In fact, the disintegration of the family unit as a social institution is one of the greatest problems facing Russia today – a country where the average life expectancy for men (63) is the lowest in Europe and Central Asia, where there are almost 10 million more women of childbearing age than men, and where one in four children is being raised by a single mother. And these are only the official figures – quite often the formal presence of a father is no guarantee of his direct involvement in a child's upbringing. These days the typical Russian family is made up of a mother and a grandmother. So, one might argue, the majority of Russian families are same-sex anyway.

There is a sociological method for measuring social tolerance known as the “undesirable neighbour” test. In other words, rather than evaluating abstract enemies it's about those you wouldn't like to have living next door. According to research carried out by VTsIOM, the majority of Russians (63 per cent) would not like to work with or live next door to an alcoholic; only slightly fewer (51 per cent) admitted that they would not like to live next door to a gay person. Yet 86 per cent of the country's inhabitants have never even met one.

It would be no exaggeration to say that every single Russian family has suffered in one way or another from the effects of alcoholism.

There are around 500,000 alcohol-related deaths in Russia every year, with middle-aged men making up the majority of these. Alcohol is the cause of death for a third of all Russian men. Alcohol abuse is associated either directly or indirectly with 62.1 per cent of all suicides, 72.2 per cent of all murders and a high per centage of cardiovascular illnesses and psychiatric disorders. Every year more than 40,000 cases of poisoning from poor-quality alcohol are recorded, some of these fatal. Alcohol is also the main cause of divorce.

Rather than face up to such serious problems, it appears that people choose to replace them with contrived, fabricated fears.

Dmitry Isaev, head of the clinical psychology department at the St. Petersburg State Paediatric Medical, believes that this is the result of effective state propaganda. Whenever they wish to increase control over people's private lives, the authorities invariably begin by inciting hostility against those who do things “differently” or deviate in any way from the “correct” model, which is supposed to govern the way everyone thinks and behaves.

“It is worth remembering that Stalin's Great Terror of 1934 began shortly after the introduction of an article criminalising homosexuality,” recalls Isaev, “and the Nazi government made homosexuality a criminal offence on coming to power in 1933. But the verbal rhetoric was a mirror image: in Germany homosexuals were branded “adherents of communist ideology”, whereas in the USSR they were denounced as ‘a bourgeois relic’.”

Isaev believes that this is precisely why it is so important for today's Russian society to oppose laws discriminating against any expression of sexual orientation – in his opinion, we must fight this battle in order to prevent a return to totalitarianism.