How Russia rejected its latest anti-gay law, and what its failure means

Russia’s latest attempt to expand on its anti-gay legislation was thrown out on technical grounds within minutes of being brought up in committee.

This was, however, a more predictable outcome than it may first appear.

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Moscow’s White House

In the words of former speaker Boris Gryzlov “the Duma is no place for discussion.” Most of the laws discussed there today have zero chance of ever passing.

Vladimir Putin’s personal approval rating may appear to be sky high at 85%, but a closer look complicates that picture, and faith in public institutions in Russia is even less secure. The most recent available polls show the Duma’s rating split about even, with 48% approving of its job and 50% disapproving.

If you think about it, that’s actually not bad for a legislature where the ruling party’s staffers once ran from desk to desk hitting the “yes” vote button to approve a law against drunk driving. Yes, those numbers are almost certainly inflated.

The fact is, nothing that passes in the Duma is an organic expression of the legislative process. Even the so-called “gay propaganda” law that makes any public discussion of homosexuality taboo was originally considered at the regional level before being passed as federal law. It wasn’t their idea.

Just to keep up the appearance that something is going on in Russia’s White House, minor lawmakers regularly propose absurd ideas to try and achieve some level of mainstream recognition. Last October for instance, Communist Vadim Solovyov introduced a law to ban lawmakers from using Whatsapp, Yahoo! or Google, citing how easily foreign intelligence can access their information. It hasn’t gone anywhere since.

Thanks to this phenomenon, Russian internet users coined a new nickname for the Duma — “the out of control printer.”

Nikitchuk

Google Trends search volume data for “Nikitchuk,” 1/18/2016. The first blip for “Nikitchuk” is for Sofia Nikitchuk, Miss Russia 2015. The second blip is for raging homophobe Ivan Nikitchuk. Note that searches for “Ivan Nikitchuk” in Russian are a flat line.

This latest law was just such a troll, but it was dangerous for two reasons: First, there is a very real possibility that, whether it became law or not, its discussion could bring further harm to LGBT Russians. Second, proposing such a law could draw attention to the odious people who brought it forth. Now that the second possibility has largely been fulfilled, it won’t be long before Russia’s shrill, anti-gay rhetoric escalates, resulting in further violence.

The decision to table Communist MP Ivan Nikitchuk’s motion wasn’t out of any generosity to the LGBT community. Committee chair Vladimir Pligin ruled amid giggling lawmakers that “if the emotional content of its authors were rephrased as an actual law, maybe it could be revisited.” The question may indeed come up again, but in all likelihood the authorities are satisfied with their current, half-assed discriminatory law, as opposed to a more blatant one that would be even more of an international liability.

(Liberal politician Dmitry Gudkov did sneak in a question as to how the law would aim to distinguish between a gay kiss and a Brezhnev kiss, amusingly enough, during the brief debate.)

Nonetheless, the dynamic that plays out whenever the issue of LGBT rights in Russia comes up in the media is not healthy. It is understandable that people are outraged when this happens, and it is commendable that they should want to do something. But any action should take into account what the reaction will be in Russia, and the best way to do that would be to reach out to activists on the ground first.

In several cases, I saw media reports on this story composed entirely of quotes from Nikitchuk, with zero from any Russian LGBT organizers. That is alarmingly close to PR — for the bad guy!!! — in lieu of journalism.

Worse yet, there is a considerable danger to playing into the homophobic argument made around the world that LGBT rights are being imposed on other countries by the West. As Mark Gevisser wrote in a New York Times op-ed describing the work of Russian LGBT groups on the ground just over two years ago:

…actions like mass boycotts against vodka or Coca-Cola (an Olympic sponsor) carry a double edge: They reinforce the official line that lesbian and gay rights are an obsession of the decadent, commercialized West, from which Russian values must be protected.

With that, it is time to acknowledge that feeding into the narrative that Russia and “the West” (whatever that means) are locked in a new Cold War is a dangerous game for LGBT people. This runs the very real risk of turning queer people into a political football. In fact, this latest story confirms is that it is already happening.

There needs to be a real discussion as to how to coordinate queer efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere. It isn’t going to happen without building bridges with activists in the country in question.


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

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