Russia's "gay propaganda" law is forcing gay community into shadows
Western leaders have criticized the law as archaic and discriminatory
One Russian lawmaker has proposed a new law that would strip gays of parenting rights
Proponents of gay rights fear the proposed law will break apart families
I’m sitting in a tiny Russian apartment, like so many others I’ve visited, talking to two parents who sound just like any other happy couple.
They tell me about the first time they met: “We were madly drawn to each other. And I couldn’t even imagine we wouldn’t be together.” They describe their hopes for the future: “As soon as we’re on our feet financially, then we plan to have a second child.”
But this is not like most other families. Both parents are women who were both previously married to men.
Their daughter is in another room playing a computer game. The women don’t want her to hear the rest of our conversation. She’s too young to understand her parents’ fears or why they live in secrecy and have asked us not to publish their names.
What’s it like to live as a gay family in Russia today? “To be silent. That’s it,” one of the women replies.
“To hide. Not to show, to give basis for rumors in the office. To be respected at work you have to keep silent,” her partner adds.
It’s always been tough to live as a gay person in this country. During the Soviet era gay sex was a crime and the majority of Russians remain deeply conservative on gay issues. It’s become even harder since parliament passed what’s known as the gay propaganda law in June of last year. The legislation makes it illegal to tell children about gay equality.
The law has been widely criticized by Western leaders who have called it archaic and discriminatory. Human rights activists say it proves Russia is unworthy of hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, which get under way in Sochi in early February. But that hasn’t stopped the political campaign for another law that would repress gay rights even further.
In 2013 lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlyov proposed a new law that would strip gay people with children of their parenting rights. The bill triggered fears the government was about to start taking children from their parents, but stalled in Russia’s parliament.
Zhuravlyov is now pushing for a slightly watered down version that would deny custody to any parent who leaves a straight relationship to be gay. He says: “In case any parent openly propagates homosexuality and only in this case, if the family splits, a child should exclusively stay with a parent who has heterosexual way of life.”
Zhuravlyov dismisses Western liberalism and says traditional Russian values dictate a child should have a father and a mother. “We think on this, Russia is on the right path compared to the west,” he says. “If you in the west are so tolerant, let Russia live with its established traditions. Be tolerant to us.”
Activists say such a law would be another backward step and fear its implementation could gather momentum after the Sochi games when the world’s focus has shifted away from Russia.
Tanya Lokshina from Human Rights Watch says the existing gay propaganda law already has the potential to criminalize gay parents.
“If you’re gay and together with your partner … you tell your child that your family is just the same, no worse and no better than another family next door, a heterosexual family, than you’ll be violating the law,” Lokshina says.
Back in the tiny apartment, two parents who love their daughter – and who describe themselves as patriots and Orthodox Christians – say they struggle to imagine a day when the government could take their child from them.
“I don’t understand how it can be,” one says. “I hope it won’t happen. Otherwise we’ll have to migrate and many people will make that decision to leave Russia.”
These parents feel increasingly pushed into the shadows of Russian society, but the couple says they and other gay parents they know are still raising their children with the goal of making their country a better place.
“As a rule, children in gay families are surrounded by care, attention and respect,” one of the women tells me. “I don’t know what kind of people they’ll be in the future, but they’re the children in who the most is being invested.”