New survey sheds light on status of LGBT in Russia

A new report released by the independent Levada Center sheds new light on ordinary people’s perceptions of LGBT people in Russia today. Unsurprisingly, the results are not encouraging. But the release of such a poll offers rare insight into Russian public opinion on these matters, and the international LGBT community would be wise to use this moment to reflect on how it can take positive steps to develop a strategies to fight homophobia in the post-Soviet space.

Titled “An Invisible Minority: on the Problem of Homophobia in Russia,” the survey took place late March, interviewing about 800 people in 134 different localities in 46 regions of the country. Thanks to the country’s “gay propaganda” law, the survey goes out of its way to note that all of those questioned were above the age of 18. The margin of error for the poll stands at plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

One of the key findings in the report is that the Ukrainian crisis and increasing tension with the West have not helped attitudes toward the LGBT community. They have, however, drawn attention from the issue. A year ago, so-called “gay propaganda” laws were a regular fixture of the news. While the public is no more tolerant, they are now much less fixated on queer issues than they were previously. The current focus on “external opponents,” such as America, the European Union and Ukraine, has distracted the Russian public from perceived “internal enemies” such as migrant workers, the gay community and ethnic minorities.

Instances of violence against members of the LGBT community, for example, were relatively low compared to 2013, at least in part due to the fact that homophobic campaigns and the community’s response to them were much more prominent at the time. According to SOVA Center, a human-rights related nonprofit, while 2014 saw 8 recorded injuries and beatings, in 2013 there were at least 2 injuries and 25 beatings. Of course, those numbers should not be viewed optimistically.

Said campaigns have likely had a chilling effect on how people responded to many of the poll’s questions. In response to questions about the nature of homosexuality, respondents in 2015 seemed generally less informed and less tolerant than in 2013. In 2015, 26% of those asked considered homosexuality to be the result of poor upbringing or a “bad habit,” as opposed to 17% in 2013. However, in 2015 only 13% considered homosexuality to be the result of abuse; 23% thought so in 2013.

Asked how society should handle the question of homosexuality in 2015, 18% said that LGBT Russians should be prosecuted by law, up 5 percentage points since 2013. Those who said that homosexuality should be “cured” stayed about the same, at 37% compared with 38% in 2013, as did the number of respondents who said that queer people should “receive help to live a normal life,” with 7% in 2015 and 8% in 2013. The number of people who said that gay people should be left alone, however, fell tangibly — from 31% in 2013 to 25% in 2015.


A translation of one of the Levada poll’s key questions. 2003 polling was limited to cities with over 20,000 residents

In the last year or so, personal feelings toward LGBT persons have not shifted much at all. However, as the report points out, among people who understand that homosexuality is “a sexual orientation with as much right to exist as heterosexuality,” the number of neutral and positive responses was twice as high.

In 2014, Levada also conducted a survey asking Russian citizens about their feelings toward trans people, which shows that a similarly high number (66%) of respondents have a negative perception of gender non-conforming people. The specific results and framing of the questions differ from those of this survey, so for comparative purposes it’s difficult to say whether shifts in attitudes toward trans people have tracked with shifts in attitudes toward lesbian, gays, or bisexuals.

For whatever reason, the poll about transgender issues also asked about peoples’ attitudes toward nudists (about which Russians are only slightly more accepting), so this particular poll should be taken with serious reservations to begin with.

The report also gets into more detailed questions about what ordinary citizens consider to be “gay propaganda,” and how knowledgeable the general public is about LGBT issues. Only 5% of those polled claim to have any gay friends among their acquaintances, or at least only 5% are aware that they do. 91% of respondents are under the impression that they do not know any queer people. Of course, under current circumstances being open about one’s sexuality or true gender identity in Russia remains dangerous.

Nevertheless, those who do know someone in the LGBT community are one and a half times less likely to have strongly negative views of gay people, and those who know even a little bit about the LGBT movement are more likely to be understanding of their problems. That much should be obvious, of course. The question is what those of us in the international community can do to be supportive and show our solidarity with queer people living in Russia, and what can be done to break through the Russian public’s stereotypical perceptions of LGBT.

To that end, I spoke briefly with Nina Long of RUSA LGBT, a network of Russian-speaking LGBTQ people concentrated in the New York area. She stressed the fact that the difficulty of the situation is exacerbated by the state’s near-total control over federal TV channels, which remain the primary source of information for most of the country’s citizens. (Another Levada Center report showed that about 90% of the country gets its news from federal TV channels, partially because the geography of the country means that cable and internet are still widely unavailable). Proper information about LGBT issues is out there, she said, but one can only find that information if they actively look for it.

Asked what kind of support the international community can lend, Long said that bringing publicity to the issues LGBT organizers in Russia face on a daily basis is still a number one priority. She gave the example of Konstantin Golava, a gay-rights activist from the auto-industry town of Tolyatti, who was recently accused of “inciting hatred” against ethnic Russians on absurd grounds. The important thing, Long noted, is that activists are frequently targeted by local actors — police, security services, politicians, etc. — who are simply eager to please their higher-ups. These kinds of incidents are in fact rarely orchestrated from above. The perception outside of Russia may be that Putin controls every minute detail of government activity, but in reality much of the madness of present-day Russia occurs when local officials take the initiative to try and impress their superiors. International coverage of such events may embarrass local bureaucrats enough that they back off, she said.

Journalist Elena Klimova, for example, was charged under the country’s “gay propaganda” law early last year for creating the website Children 404, offering support to LGBTI teenagers. After drawing international attention and even a campaign from Amnesty International, charges against Klimova were dropped.

Rainbow Russia, via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow Russia, via Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, Long said that it is crucial to establish real friendships and connections with activists abroad, and to build stronger ties between the LGBT community in America and elsewhere. She said that people should not be afraid to visit, and RUSA is currently working to bring LGBT activists from both Ukraine and Russia to New York City’s pride festival to build such connections and get people in contact with one another. The proximity of this year’s EuroPride to Russia and Ukraine, to take place in Riga, Latvia, will also make such connections possible.

Lastly, Long pointed in the direction of creating solidarity right here in the United States. She noted that since last year, asylum requests have been up significantly, but so have waiting times to have those requests heard. The increasing length of time it takes to get approved puts asylees in a dangerous position in which they are forced to either work illegally or save up for months or even years to be able to wait out the process. Long suspected that Congress’s inability to act on immigration reform has made it more difficult and more dangerous for working-class LGBT in the Russian regions to seek safety abroad, and that this is increasingly becoming a problem that the Russian-speaking LGBT diaspora must seek to address.

All of which would strongly suggest that, as elsewhere, the way to move the fight for queer liberation forward is not just to seek equality, but to build solidarity in the pursuit of justice.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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