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LGBT in Russia: Legal Circuses

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

Kafkaesque legal wranglings against activists have succeeded in shutting down a gay rights movement in Russia. These four cases paved the way.
 
On July 24, 2013, less than a month af­ter Vladimir Putin had signed an anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law, Alexey Davy­dov, an LGBT ac­tivist, was ar­rested out­side of the Russ­ian State Chil­dren’s Li­brary as he un­wrapped a hand-made ban­ner read­ing “It’s nor­mal to be gay.”
 
“Which law are you us­ing to ar­rest me?” Davy­dov asked two po­lice­men reach­ing to take him by his arms. “It’s a chil­dren es­tab­lish­ment here,” grunted the one on the left. Davy­dov was ush­ered into a po­lice van.
 
In Rus­si­a’s Ad­min­is­tra­tive Code, a law known as Ar­ti­cle 6.21 had been re­cently passed that banned the “pro­pa­ganda of non-tra­di­tional sex­ual re­la­tions among mi­nors.” Davy­dov be­came the first per­son to be charged with break­ing the new law, which was his plan —to be de­tained and to use the in­ci­dent to chal­lenge the law.
 
This is the story of what hap­pened af­ter Davy­dov, in four promi­nent cases.
 
But the 36-year-old Davy­dov died of kid­ney fail­ure two months later, be­fore his case was heard by a court. The law was con­se­quently up­held when three other ac­tivists, Niko­lai Alek­seev, Dmitry Isakov and Yaroslav Ev­tushenko ap­pealed its le­gal­ity to the Con­sti­tu­tional Court of Rus­sia. Since it ruled that ban­ning “gay pro­pa­ganda to mi­nors” was a law­ful move, it has had “a huge cool­ing ef­fect” on ac­tivists, ac­cord­ing to Dmitry Bartenev, a St. Pe­ters­burg lawyer who has de­fended many LGBTQ ac­tivists.
 
On March 4, 2013, Lena Klimova pub­lished an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Chil­dren-404” in the Ros­balt news ser­vice seek­ing to show the ab­sence of ev­i­dence-based poli­cies con­cern­ing at-risk LGBTQ ado­les­cents in Rus­sia. The ar­ti­cle mor­phed into a cause, and soon a mas­sive on­line com­mu­nity across so­cial net­works emerged, where teenagers could share their sto­ries and con­nect with other peo­ple who could of­fer sup­port and un­der­stand­ing. “Chil­dren-404” be­came Klimova’s long-term pro­ject, more ac­tivist than jour­nal­is­tic.
 
“Chil­dren 404” made Lena Klimova one of the chief tar­gets of Roskom­nad­zor, a gov­ern­ment over­sight agency that reg­u­lates the Russ­ian In­ter­net. Ac­cord­ing to Meduza, an in­de­pen­dent on­line pub­li­ca­tion, the agency blocks an av­er­age of 60 pages a day.
 
Paid ex­perts, such as aca­d­e­mics and de­fense lawyers, tes­ti­fied against Klimova in court. The opin­ions in­cluded the views of Lidia Matveeva, a psy­chol­o­gist teach­ing at Moscow State Uni­ver­sity who cited sources in­clud­ing the Big So­viet En­cy­clo­pe­dia pub­lished be­tween 1969-1978, pas­sages from the New Tes­ta­ment, and an es­say by a right-wing, Amer­i­can the­o­rist named Joe Carter, co-au­thor of the book “How to Ar­gue like Je­sus.”
 
Alexan­der Er­moshkin, 41, a gay ac­tivist and for­mer school teacher, uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor and re­searcher from Khabarovsk and cur­rently an asy­lum seeker in the US, was at­tacked on the street, forced to aban­don his job, and por­trayed as a US in­tel­li­gence as­set on Russ­ian TV. “Fi­nally, the sen­sa­tion of con­stant per­se­cu­tion forced me to leave,” he said.
 
Er­moshkin was never ac­tu­ally tar­geted for di­rect pros­e­cu­tion. Rather, the state set its sights on Alexan­der Su­turin, the ed­i­tor-in-chief of a lo­cal news­pa­per called Molodoy Dal­nevos­tochnik that had pub­lished sto­ries on Er­moshkin. A 2013 ar­ti­cle ti­tled “His­tory with Geyo­g­ra­phy” de­scribed how Er­moshkin was ousted from teach­ing for hav­ing de­vel­oped “fame from be­ing an LGBT or­ga­nizer.”
 
On Jan­u­ary 31, 2014, Su­turin was found guilty of spread­ing gay pro­pa­ganda and or­dered to pay a 50,000 rubles fine. His lawyer ap­pealed, but a higher court con­firmed the ver­dict.
 
Su­turin de­cided not to ap­peal for a sec­ond time. Er­moshkin, the sub­ject of the ar­ti­cle, was as­saulted be­fore flee­ing Rus­sia. Ac­cord­ing to Er­moshkin, other ac­tivists re­ceived a warn­ing from the FSB, the KGB suc­ces­sor or­ga­ni­za­tion: “We have let Er­moshkin leave, but we will make sure to round you all up”.
 
On Feb­ru­ary 24, 2014, Vi­taly Milonov, a Saint Pe­ters­burg MP no­to­ri­ous for his deep hos­til­ity to gays, held a pub­lic hear­ing to de­bate the mer­its of the city’s pro­posed anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law. It was a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion.
 
Dmitry Isaev, sex­ol­o­gist, psy­chi­a­trist and psy­chother­a­pist who was at the time head­ing the De­part­ment of Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­ogy at Saint Pe­ters­burg State Pe­di­atric Med­ical Acad­emy, was in­vited to speak. In­vok­ing his re­search, he ar­gued that pro­pa­ganda can be ide­o­log­i­cal or so­cial in pur­pose but it has noth­ing to do with the na­ture of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or with med­i­cine in gen­eral. “Of course, the dis­cus­sion was heated enough”, said Isaev. “The prob­lem is that the sup­port­ers of the law did not pro­vide any ar­gu­ments. And when ex­perts’ opin­ions were quoted, the other side just shouted back.” St. Pe­ters­burg passed an anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law five days later.
 
On Au­gust 9, 2012, Madonna per­formed in St. Pe­ters­burg. She said from the stage: “Now I’m here to say that the gay com­mu­nity and gay peo­ple, here and all around the world, have the same rights. The same rights to be treated with dig­nity, with re­spect, with tol­er­ance, with love. Are you with me? If you’re with me, I want to see your pink wrist­bands! Are you with me? Are you moth­er­fuck­in’ with me?” Af­ter­wards she asked peo­ple wear­ing pink wrist­bands, dis­trib­uted at the en­trance, to raise their hands in sol­i­dar­ity.
 
Lead­ers of an ob­scure or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Union of Russ­ian Cit­i­zens de­manded 333 mil­lion rubles from Madonna for pub­licly de­fend­ing LGBTQ peo­ple and mock­ing Chris­t­ian sym­bols. “Boys and girls will prac­tice de­bauch­ery more, and it will lead to the loss of the coun­try’s de­fense ca­pac­ity, among other things”, one of the plain­tiffs was quoted by RAPSI, Rus­si­a’s le­gal news ser­vice.
 
The judge, how­ever, treated the plain­tiffs’ ar­gu­ments with a great deal of skep­ti­cism. Ac­cord­ing to a Rossiyskaya Gazeta re­porter, when a woman stood up to com­plain that her un­der­age brother saw Madon­na’s show on so­cial me­dia, he replied that it should had been his par­ents’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to stop him from watch­ing it. The judge ad­vised anti-gay ac­tivists to fight liquor com­pa­nies in­stead.
 
Milonov later tried to have Madonna fined for breach­ing her Russ­ian visa con­di­tions, but Madonna an­nounced she is not plan­ning to re­turn. “I won’t ap­pear in Moscow or Saint Pe­ters­burg any­more, be­cause I don’t want to per­form in places where be­ing ho­mo­sex­ual is tan­ta­mount to a crime,” she said in 2015.
 
The fail­ure to turn Madonna into a con­victed crim­i­nal in Rus­sia might have been con­sid­ered a ran­dom en­counter with an open-minded judge, but there is an­other in­di­ca­tion that the anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law was in­tended only for “in­ter­nal use” in Rus­sia. Two lawyers in sep­a­rate cases in 2015 un­suc­cess­fully at­tempted to sue Ap­ple for mak­ing emoji de­pict­ing same-sex fam­i­lies avail­able in the iPhone 6.
 
The per­se­cu­tion of LGBT ac­tivists in Rus­sia did not start the day the first re­gional anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law was passed. The state has been ef­fec­tively us­ing a num­ber of other mea­sures: laws on the pro­tec­tion of chil­dren from harm­ful in­for­ma­tion, meet­ings, ral­lies and demon­stra­tions; and most re­cently, with a for­eign agents law. Ac­tivists are of­ten charged with civil dis­obe­di­ence or hooli­gan­ism. Sergey Alex­eenko, a Mur­mansk ac­tivist and a for­mer di­rec­tor of Max­i­mum, the LGBT rights group that ceased to ex­ist in 2015, had been tar­geted for pros­e­cu­tion un­der many of these laws.
 
On July 21, 2013, four Dutch cit­i­zens were ar­rested at the site of the Youth Hu­man Rights Camp held by Max­i­mum out­side of Mur­mansk. Po­lice had tried to use the anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law against the group, but since there were no mi­nors pre­sent they fined the Dutch na­tion­als for film­ing in Rus­sia while on tourist visas.
 
In 2015 Max­i­mum was fined 300,000 rubles for not de­clar­ing them­selves for­eign agents. Then the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s di­rec­tor Sergei Alex­eenko was per­son­ally fined 25,000 for “an un­sanc­tioned protest” as he re­leased bal­loons into the sky on May 17, the an­nual Rain­bow Flash­mob day.

Olga Kravets is a multimedia storyteller based in Paris.

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

LGBT in Russia: Legal Circuses

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