“Our existence is illegal.” As Moscow tightens anti-gay law, LGBTQ Russians fear for the future

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Young mothers Yana and Yaroslava do not want to leave Russia with their 6-year-old son. But they fear a tough new anti-gay law passed by Russian lawmakers will leave them with little choice.

“We are citizens, the same as everyone else. We pay taxes, support charities. But the government is doing everything to force us to leave the country. Honestly, it’s scary to stay, Yaroslava told CNN.

Russia’s upper house of parliament gave its final approval in late November to a new package of laws toughening an existing law on so-called “LGBTQ propaganda,” and it was signed into law on Monday by President Vladimir Putin. The added restrictions on “propaganda” seen as promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships and/or preferences” carry heavy penalties – a move activists say will put LGBTQ communities under increased scrutiny and surveillance.

As the Kremlin prepared to finalize the expansion of the 2013 discriminatory anti-gay law, members of the LGBTQ community in Russia told CNN they fear the uncertain future.

“We are the most vulnerable category within LGBT. We have a child and they (Russian authorities) can put pressure on us, Yaroslava said.

Yana and Yaroslava, both self-employed marketing workers, are raising their child in Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg. Both lesbians have asked not to reveal their last names for security reasons.

“Our mere existence is illegal for our state and even for our child,” Yaroslava said.

“According to the law, we are people with a non-traditional sexual orientation and children should not see us or that we exist at all. Our son sees us. By that logic, our existence is “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” in our family. That means we are illegal.”

The couple say they have created a bubble of protection around the family to avoid scrutiny from the authorities. The measures include using private accounts on social media, having access to a network of trusted people, sending the son to a private nursery where a child with two mothers is less likely to trigger a homophobic reaction, and using a private hospital where they run less risk of a doctor calling child welfare authorities to ask about their family arrangement, they said.

But the couple say they are reluctant to leave because of a lack of financial resources and available relocation programs in LGBTQ-friendly countries, even as they fear living under the tougher legislation.

The new legislative package increases the country’s existing ban on spreading so-called “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, making it illegal to share information across all media and all ages.

Some have resorted to self-censorship pending the law’s adoption.

The Moscow-based publisher Eksmo took preventive measures by censoring some fragments of the book “Shattered”, which contains descriptions of sexual scenes between two men, even before the law was finally passed. The publisher explained that it had hidden 3% of the text — covering it with black ink — “so as not to hide the fact of censorship,” the publisher said in a press release.

“I am glad that the publisher decided not to cut out the text, but rather to paint it over in black. Where there were feelings, the characters’ attraction, where it was their experience of getting to know their own sexuality, there will now be empty black lines,” said the author, Max Falk, according to the press release. The story, published in October, is about “the love and friendship of two young men” from different social circles in Russia.

Recent novels centered on LGBTQ characters have drawn crowds of readers, causing a stir among Russian lawmakers.

The 2021 bestseller Summer in a Pioneer Tie, which explores the budding romance between two men who met at a summer camp in Soviet Kharkiv in the 1980s, sold a record 200,000 paper copies and 32,000 online copies. Legislators and public figures responded by hurling criticism and calling for strengthened anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“As a writer of books that address the [LGBTQ] topic, of course I’m very concerned about this,” gay author Ksenia told CNN. She asked not to give her last name for fear of repercussions.

On the day the bill passed through the lower house of parliament, Ksenia discovered that both of her books with LGBTQ references had disappeared from Labirint, an online bookstore. The store confirmed in a press release that it had “temporarily suspended” the sale of some books to “analyze their contents for the presence of prohibited information in them”.

“Self-censorship is a big thing,” Ksenia told CNN, pointing out that the law hadn’t even gone into effect at the time of the speech.

“I don’t know how this law will affect the distribution of this content, but I guess people will somehow find it,” Ksenia added.

She hopes that the new package will not stop books about LGBTQ characters from being published and read.

While human rights activists expect censorship in the form of blocked websites, banned books and regular fines, LBGTQ bloggers and content creators are making their social media channels private and deleting posts, according to the Sphere Foundation, an organization that defends the rights of LGBTQ people in Russia and has launched a petition against the new bill.

“We expect a new wave of hate,” Alexander Belik, head of the Sphere Foundation’s advocacy program, told CNN. “This law empowers public rhetoric about hate.”

Since the debate over the restrictions began, LGBTQ people have become increasingly concerned about their safety, according to Belik.

“Society is in a state of panic,” Belik said of the new law, suggesting it will induce self-censorship among LGBTQ advocacy groups who fear a potential Kremlin crackdown.

“We encourage the LGBTQ community not to panic and to continue living their lives,” Belik said.

He said the organization will continue to fight for the abolition of the law and support those who may be persecuted under it.

The Kremlin has consistently described LGBTQ communities in Russia as existing in opposition to “traditional values,” a line of rhetoric that activists say directly harms LGBTQ people across the country.

Since the first “gay propaganda” law passed in 2013, Russia has seen repeated attacks on the gay community, notably in 2017 and again in 2019 in the southern region of Chechnya, where activists reported dozens of men and women arrested and some tortured and killed for his sexual orientation, and no proper investigation followed.

Putin framed what he described as Western abandonment of “traditional values” as a “challenge” for Russian society in a speech in September announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, in violation of international law. At the time, he faced unusual criticism even from Kremlin loyalists over Moscow’s huge losses on the battlefield in Ukraine, and low morale at home.

“Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest school days, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist alongside women and men and offer them sex reassignment surgeries? Is that what we want for our country and our children?” Putin said inside the Kremlin’s Georgievsky Hall.

– All this is unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own, Putin continued.

The new package bans any material that the authorities deem to be LBGTQ “propaganda”, making such material illegal among Russians of all ages and constituting an offense with fines of up to $6,400 for individuals and up to approximately $80,000 for legal entities . Foreigners can face up to 15 days in jail or deportation for breaking the law. The main difference between the original iteration of the law and the extended version is that now the ban on so-called same-sex “propaganda” will apply to all ages and in all media.

The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, called the new legislation a “response to the Blinken Act”, referring to a tweet in which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the proposed extension of the ban.

“That is the best answer to Foreign Minister Blinken. Stop imposing foreign values ​​on us. You destroyed your values ​​- we’ll see how it all ends, but it will definitely be sad,” Volodin told the State Duma – Russia’s lower house – after it voted unanimously to adopt the changes in the final reading.

Putin’s enforcement of anti-LGBTQ laws is part of a broader trend of repressive policies as the Kremlin positions itself in opposition to so-called Western values, according to Dan Healey, professor of modern Russian history at the University of Oxford.

“They are being knitted into a wider social and cultural and defense policy, you know, around so-called traditional values. And that’s just reducing the space in which a non-heterosexual existence can comfortably take place in Russia,” Healey told CNN.

“The consequences for LGBTQ people in Russia are extensive and really, really oppressive. They become a kind of underground people who are unable to become visible in public space.”

Russian activists claim the authorities’ renewed targeting of LGBTQ communities in Russia is linked to Moscow’s faltering war in Ukraine.

They suggest the purpose of the new legislative package is to distract the nation from the domestic backlash against Putin’s partial mobilization, announced in September, and the war of attrition that has depleted the nation’s military resources.

– Among other things, it also diverts attention from what is happening in the country. As soon as it gets a little worse, we have an enemy to point to: it’s because of them that it’s so rough, said Anton Macintosh from Russia’s first transgender support group, T-Action. The organization was labeled a “foreign agent” — a status close to “traitor” that prevents business in Russia — the day after Russia’s parliament passed the third and final reading of the law.

Macintosh said his organization had been contacted by a growing number of people who were concerned that they would not be able to receive proper medical support in their gender transition processes. The process is currently legal if a person goes through a comprehensive review to get a psychiatrist’s note, Macintosh said, but it remains unclear how the new legislative package will be implemented.

“Unlike a cisgender person, when visiting a doctor or being hospitalized, a transgender person does not have the ability to hide their status,” Macintosh said, referring to the physical changes that result from hormone therapy. “Will there be proper health care available to transgender people?”

The less access to support groups a trans person has, the more afraid and hopeless they are likely to feel, Macintosh explained. Stigmatizing their status causes even more emotional strain, he said.

“We receive many suicide letters. We do surveys every three months and ask about emotional well-being. A lot of people have shared hard feelings about how they don’t know how they’re going to live,” Macintosh said.

“This is not just an anti-gay law, this is also explicitly an anti-trans law,” said Vanya Solovey, an advocacy and program officer for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the trans rights group Transgender Europe, referring to the part of the package that bans marketing of information that may lead people to want to change the gender assigned at birth.

“It is explicitly aimed at raising awareness about gender transition. And this is of course very worrying,” he added.

“When someone (Putin) at this high level of authority spreads these misconceptions, it increases the stigma that transgender people have to face.”

When the bill passed its first reading in the State Duma in October, Russia’s first transgender politician, Yulia Alyoshina, made the decision to step down from her role as regional leader of the Civic Initiative party and end her political career.

“I have never been involved in such propaganda, but I have no idea how to continue to engage in public political activity as an open transgender woman,” she said in a Telegram post.

Alyoshina said she had been discriminated against as a transgender politician on several occasions since getting her new passport in 2020, but says this law will further complicate the already difficult life of all LGBTQ people in Russia.

“The law is discriminatory,” she told CNN. “Any form of information can fall under the term ‘propaganda’. Since it is not clearly defined, this will be left to the discretion of the courts.”

“The text of the law rejects social equivalence of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ preferences,” she added. “This means that LGBT people in Russia are recognized by the authorities at the legislative level as socially unequal. In other words, second-rate people.”

Alyoshina said the new package is characteristic of an authoritarian government’s policy towards society.

“The sexual life of citizens is a part of human freedom that an authoritarian regime cannot tolerate,” she said. “The adoption of the law is just another brick in building an autocracy in Russia.”