Gabriel Preece was in Russia on the international anti-homophobia day of 2017. He was ready to participate in a gay rights demonstration. He knew the time and place of the demonstration. But when he got there he was alone. Where was everyone? Had the police arrested them? No, that was not it. Fearing that Gabriel might be arrested and deported, they had given him the wrong directions. Rather than encouraging as many people as possible to come, they felt a responsibility to keep people away from the demonstration – the risk of police reprisals was too high.
Gabriel Preece, now a first-year medical student at Glasgow, recently spent six months in the Russian city, Samara. He was there to help disabled children as part of a voluntary initiative. His plan was to work and simultaneously improve his Russian. But once in Russia the issue of gay rights was unavoidable. Through a friend, Gabriel learned of the gay rights activist Evdokia Romanova. Romanova had shared articles about gay rights on her social media account. She was accused of giving a “distorted view of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships”. That is considered a crime in Russia. The law Romanova was charged with breaking is the infamous anti-gay speech code, what the Kremlin euphemistically calls “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors.” Romanova is now facing a possible fine of 100,000 rubles (approx. £1300) and has taken the decision to emigrate to Slovenia.
Romanova’s experience was one of the reasons why Gabriel got involved with gay rights. In Russia, furthering gay rights involves seemingly trivial things, such as ordinary small talk and socialising. But if it seems trivial for us in Scotland, it is anything but trivial for Russians. Being gay in Russia is a “very isolating experience”, says Gabriel. “Most people either had very, very bad relationships with their families, or no relationships.” This “leads to mental health problems” for many gay people, says Gabriel, because “life in a society that doesn’t accept you is very isolating.” When this is a reality – when what most take for granted is not given – ordinary conversations become acts of solidarity and dissent.
Homophobia in Russia is felt throughout all of society. It is a layer of the social fabric that envelops everyday life. It is pronounced, almost casually, wherever you are. Upon hearing that you are from the West, says Gabriel, Russians may well start talking about homosexuality. Social Darwinism is common, he says. They say that gays are “weakening the gene pool and destroying the Russian nation.” There is a worry, or glee perhaps, among some Russians, that “gay people are making Western nations decadent.”
But as ugly as all that is, there are worse forms of homophobia. Bigotry does not
always stop at a derogatory comment; it can often lead to violence. Although Gabriel
never saw any, he says that “lots of my LGBT friends said that they had been beaten up on previous occasions.” One of his best friends, a small and unimposing woman, had been beaten up for waving a rainbow flag. Then, when the police showed up, they arrested Gabriel’s friend and let the attackers escape. This is how a culture of fear is created. The threat of violence is constant and homosexuals must act accordingly, “one would never hold hands with a man outside”, says Gabriel.
Homophobia is on the rise in Russia. Polls suggest that it is becoming increasingly widespread and entrenched. Unsurprisingly, much homophobia stems from religion. The Orthodox Church, Gabriel says, has had its position strengthened since 2014. The combined factors of the Ukrainian revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the fall in oil prices, has made the Kremlin uneasy. This instability was used by Putin to become even more authoritarian. Whether exigency or opportunism, it is evident that Putin shored up his power. Gabriel says that “part of that was strengthening relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.” This gave the Orthodox Church a free hand to make “vast quantities of anti-homosexual propaganda.” Their message was seen on posters and newspapers. It could be heard in sermons and seen on television. “You get lots of Orthodox priests coming on and damning homosexuality”, says Gabriel.
Patriarch Kirill, the highest religious authority in the Russian Orthodox Church, preaches that Western liberalism is a harbinger of the Apocalypse. In a sermon Kirill gave last year he said that some human rights are “heresy”. He did not specify exactly which rights were heretical, but a few months ago, Kirill compared gay marriage with Nazi Germany, and in 2016 he said that homosexual unions were a threat to civilisation akin to “Soviet totalitarianism”.
Patriarch Kirill is not just a tremendous dunderhead, he is also one of the most powerful men in Russia. What he says is regurgitated by his “flock”. And his flock is neither meek nor mild. In 2013, gay right protesters were assaulted by hundreds of Orthodox reactionaries. And as Peter Pomerantsev of Newsweek has reported, Christian Orthodox vigilante groups “dressed in all-black clothing emblazoned with skulls and crosses” are patrolling the streets of Moscow. This group, calling itself Holy Russia, is stalking through Moscow in search of “Satanic” forces to do battle with. This, in a city that by Russian standards is comparatively liberal, leads one to ask - what can possibly be the future of gay rights in Russia?
It is worth remembering that as recently as 2000 it was illegal for local Scottish authorities to “promote” homosexuality. History teaches us that social change seems impossible until it occurs, at which time everyone wonders how it was resisted for so long. Social change happens fast and attitudes can be reversed in a generation. But Russia is not a legitimate democracy and while that continues, change, even gradual change, is unlikely.
“It is difficult to see the Russian government loosening its stance, I have to say, without major political change”, says Gabriel, “it has always been difficult to get change in Russia.” Because, he explains, “the elite feels unstable, it fears the general population, and it fears that by being less authoritarian it will bubble over.”
There cannot be full acceptance of gay rights in Russia with the current government,
says Gabriel. And although he thinks there will eventually be a political change, it is
still far in the future. “I don’t see gay marriage in Russia within the next thirty years.”