Q&A: Gay rights in Russia

Russian police guard gay rights activists after they were attacked by rival protesters in St Petersburg, 29 June 2013
Image caption These gay rights activists were attacked by rival protesters in St Petersburg in June despite the presence of police

Gay people in Russia are under pressure over their sexual orientation, 20 years after the country decriminalised homosexuality.

A bill banning gay "propaganda" among juveniles has raised fears that the community is being scapegoated by populist politicians.

Hate crimes against gay people in Russia have made headlines abroad, even if the true scale of the problem is hard to quantify.

Here BBC News looks at some of the issues.

Just how hard is life for gay people in modern Russia?

Perhaps one day there will be a study as representative as the EU's recent, pioneering five-year survey of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. In the meantime, international gay rights watchdogs like Ilga-Europe have been monitoring the situation.

In its latest assessment of 49 European states, Ilga-Europe rated Russia as the hardest for gay people to live in. Its report - compiled even before the propaganda law was passed - looked at everything from hate crime to family recognition.

Hostility towards gay people has not been helped by the deeply conservative attitudes among the two biggest faith groups, Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims. No major celebrities or politicians in Russia are openly gay because to "come out" would be tantamount to professional suicide, according to a BBC Monitoring report in March.

"I have never risked holding hands in public and that is the only reason why I would not want to live in Russia," one gay man from Siberia told BBC News in an anonymous interview in Moscow in 2006.

What do the country's leaders say?

On a visit to Amsterdam in April, President Vladimir Putin said: "I want everyone to understand that in Russia there are no infringements on sexual minorities' rights. They're people, just like everyone else, and they enjoy full rights and freedoms."

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's urbane foreign minister, put it like this: "Homosexuality, as you know, used to be a criminal act in the Soviet Union. This article in the criminal code has long been repealed and homosexuals can do their thing absolutely freely and without punishment."

But he added that gay people could not be allowed to "aggressively promote their values, which are different from those of the majority, and to impose them on children".

So what is this "propaganda" law?

The legislation passed in June amended Russia's child protection law with a clause covering "the propagandising of non-traditional sexual relations among minors". This prescribes fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. These range from 4,000 roubles (£78; $121) for an individual to 1m roubles for organisations.

Critics say the amendment's loose wording, and its free interpretation by the authorities, effectively make any kind of public gay rights event in Russia impossible. Not that this would affect the situation in the capital, Moscow, where "gay pride" events have effectively been banned for 100 years by court order.

'Non-traditional sexual relations'?

The use of a Russian euphemism in the amendment, instead of a plain reference to homosexual relations, leaves an already controversial piece of legislation open to interpretation.

It also suggests that homosexuality (a word not mentioned anywhere in the amendment) is somehow alien to life in Russia, a country with a well-documented gay sub-culture stretching back centuries, which includes such famous figures as the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

How much is the new law about domestic politics?

It is tempting to see it as a populist measure aimed at an easy target. One opinion poll taken earlier this year suggested there was overwhelming public backing for the new law. It also suggested that three-quarters of Russians considered homosexuality an illness or aberration.

The timing of the "gay propaganda" debate was interesting, coming in the first year of Mr Putin's new presidential term, after he had weathered the biggest anti-government protests since Soviet times. In the political propaganda war during the protests, pro-Kremlin bloggers sought to ridicule the opposition in the eyes of the Russian public by portraying them as gay rights campaigners.

Is Russia now a more dangerous country for gay people to live in?

The broadcaster Stephen Fry has called for Russia to be denied the right to host the Winter Olympics, in protest at the treatment of gay people in Russia. He accused the Russian authorities of standing by as hate crimes multiplied.

On several occasions this year, in Moscow and St Petersburg, security forces failed to prevent assaults on gay rights activists by rival protesters, despite being present nearby.

No accurate figures for homophobic attacks in Russia are available but, according to Ilga-Europe's Bjoern van Roozendaal: "There is a worrying trend of violence targeting young people." Activists in Russia recently counted 150 hate videos posted online, he told BBC News. Typically these involve the perpetrators publicly abusing and humiliating gay people. The victims are sometimes lured into traps through fake dating ads on social media.

"The Russian authorities have not responded to any of these developments," said Mr van Roozendaal, pointing out that the perpetrators were often clearly identifiable in the videos. "The victims have no confidence in the authorities, so they're unlikely to report these developments. It will also be very difficult for non-governmental organisations to reach out to these individuals after they have been humiliated and wary as they are of the anti-propaganda law."

Two horrific murders this year were reported to have homophobic motives even if, as in the case of a young man beaten to death in May in Volgograd, the victim may not actually have been gay. Arrests were made in the Volgograd case, as they were the following month in Kamchatka, where an airport official was beaten to death.

"The question of hard and fast statistics about homophobic violence seems perverse," Mr van Roozendaal argues. "The question is, should we delay demanding action until these figures become available?"

What happens next?

There are signs that homosexuals in Russia may be singled out in new ways. Plans exist, the Moscow Times reports, for a nationwide survey of gay people and prostitutes for HIV next year, albeit on a voluntary basis. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of infections are among the country's heroin addicts.

In January, the Russian army issued guidelines for checking new conscripts for intimate tattoos that may indicate "possible sexual deviations" among other things.

It remains to be seen whether initiatives like Fry's call or a boycott of Russian vodka by gay-friendly bars in the US and UK will improve conditions for gay people in Russia, while their counterparts in Western countries move closer to full equality with heterosexuals.

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