Russia | Forbidden Love

The country’s homosexuals struggle against increasing marginalisation

01 February 2014
Riot police detain LGBT rights activists who were attacked by anti-gay protesters during a rally in St Petersburg, Russia.
Riot police detain LGBT rights activists who were attacked by anti-gay protesters during a rally in St Petersburg, Russia.

CHRISTINA MALITOVSKAYA lives with Katya, her girlfriend of three years, in a typically drab Soviet-era apartment block in a north-western suburb of Moscow called Zelenograd. Malitovskaya is stoutly built, her face is boldly framed by a bob haircut and a dyed blonde fringe, and she wears no makeup. The ring finger of her right hand is decorated with a simple golden band. Malitovskaya and her girlfriend consider themselves to be married, but the Russian state does not legally recognise their union. Unlike heterosexual married couples, they cannot take on a joint mortgage, make decisions for each other should either get seriously ill, or be each other’s legal heirs.

Malitovskaya, now 34 years old, heads the Moscow branch of LGBT-Set (“LGBT-Network”), the country’s biggest LGBT rights organisation. Founded in 2006, LGBT-Set currently has divisions in 17 Russian subyekti (“subjects”, or constituent political regions), where it conducts research for international institutions such as the United Nations, trains activists, and provides free counselling. Malitovskaya currently coordinates 28 volunteers who help run a telephone helpline for the Moscow area that handles calls from LGBT people seeking both moral and legal support. The service is busier now than it has ever been. In a country where the community has only recently started openly asserting itself, LGBT people face deep prejudice and even hatred, making it difficult to find someone to talk to. Now, a new law banning the spread of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”, broadly interpreted to include the dissemination of any information on LGBT rights, is threatening LGBT-Set’s work. The law, Malitovskaya told me, has had far-reaching social effects, since the government had “shown who the second-class people here are”.

Violations of this new law—passed by the Russian parliament on 11 June 2013 with 436 votes in favour and only one of the 437 members abstaining—are punishable by fines of up to 5,000 roubles (approximately $152) for individuals, 50,000 roubles ($1,518) for government officials, and 1 million roubles ($30,350) or a suspension of up to 90 days for organisations, with fines for individuals and officials rising steeply if the offending material is published or broadcast via news media or on the internet. Under these provisions, authorities have already charged one newspaper and at least three individuals, including two activists arrested for demonstrating outside a children’s library in the city of Arkhangelsk with posters reading “People do not become gay, people are born gay”. The new law also makes it harder to protest a string of other anti-homosexual legislative initiatives. In September, the parliament considered a bill to strip homosexual couples of parental rights. The proposal was sent back for revision in a move widely seen as a stalling tactic meant to minimise international criticism before Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics this February. Malitovskaya does not doubt that the bill will eventually be passed. The parliament has also discussed a ban on homosexuals donating blood.

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    Anastasia Shpilko is a Moscow-based freelance writer and photographer for several Russian and international publications.

    Keywords: rights international community activism sexuality Russia Winter Olympics youth LGBT