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Young mothers Yana and Yaroslava don’t want to leave Russia with their 6-year-old son. But they fear a harsh new anti-gay law passed by Russian lawmakers will leave them little choice.
“We are citizens, same as everyone else. We pay taxes, support charities. But the government is doing everything to force us to leave the country. Honestly, it is scary to stay,” Yaroslava told CNN.
Russia’s upper house of parliament gave its final approval in late November to a new legislative package that toughens an existing law on so-called “LGBTQ propaganda,” and it was signed into law Monday by President Vladimir Putin. The added restrictions on “propaganda” seen as promoting “non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences” carry heavy penalties – a move activists say will put LGBTQ communities under heightened 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 feared the uncertain future ahead.
“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 of St. Petersburg. Both lesbians, they have asked not to disclose 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 of non-traditional sexual orientation and children should not see us or that we exist at all. Our son sees us. By that logic, our very existence is ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ within our family. That means we are illegal.”
The pair say they have created a bubble of protection around their family in order to avoid scrutiny from authorities. The measures include using private accounts on social media, having access to a network of trusted people, sending their son to a private kindergarten where the fact a kid has two moms is less likely to spark a homophobic reaction, and using a private hospital where they run less risk of a doctor calling child protection authorities to make inquiries about their family set-up, 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 though they are fearful about living under the toughened legislation.
‘We expect a new wave of hatred’
The new legislative package ratchets up the country’s existing ban on spreading so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, making it illegal to share any information across all media and all ages.
Some have taken to self-censorship in anticipation of the law’s passage.
Moscow-based publisher Eksmo took preemptive measures by censoring some fragments of the book “Shattered,” which contains descriptions of sexual scenes between two men, even before the law was finalized. The publisher explained it had hidden 3% of the text – covering it in black ink – “in order not to hide the fact of censorship,” the publisher said in a press release.
“I’m 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 there 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 attracted swathes 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 in a summer camp in Soviet Kharkiv in the 1980s, sold a record 200,000 hard copies and 32,000 online copies. Lawmakers and public figures responded by lashing out with criticism and calling for beefed-up anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“As an author of books that raise [the LGBTQ] topic, of course, I am very concerned about this,” gay writer 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 both her books containing LGBTQ references had disappeared from Labirint, an online bookstore. The store confirmed in a press release they had “temporarily suspended” selling some books to “analyze their content for the presence of prohibited information in them.”
“Self-censorship is a big thing,” Ksenia told CNN, pointing out that the law had not even come into effect at the time of speaking.
“I don’t know how this law will affect the distribution of this content, but I assume that somehow people will find it,” Ksenia added.
She is hopeful that the new package will not stop books about LGBTQ characters from being published and read.
As human rights activists anticipate 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 hatred,” Alexander Belik, head of the Sphere Foundation’s advocacy program, told CNN. “This law enhances public rhetoric of hate.”
Since the debate on the restrictions began, LGBTQ people have become increasingly worried for their safety, according to Belik.
“The community is in an alarmed state,” Belik said of the new law, suggesting that it will induce self-censorship among LGBTQ advocacy groups who fear a potential Kremlin crackdown.
“We urge the LGBTQ community not to succumb to panic and continue living their lives,” Belik said.
He said the organization would continue fighting for the abolition of the law and support those who may be persecuted under it.
Russian politicians condemn ‘foreign values’
The Kremlin has consistently described LGBTQ communities in Russia as existing in opposition with “traditional values,” a line of rhetoric that activists say directly harms LGBTQ people across the country.
Since the first law on “gay propaganda” passed in 2013, Russia has seen repeated crackdowns on the gay community, most notably in 2017 and again in 2019 in the southern region of Chechnya, where activists reported dozens of men and women were detained and some tortured and killed for their sexual orientation, and no proper investigation followed.
Putin framed what he described as the Western renunciation of “traditional values” as a “challenge” to Russian society in a speech in September announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, in violation of international law. At the time, he was facing 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 days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children?” Putin said inside the Kremlin’s Georgievsky Hall.
“This is all unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own,” Putin continued.
The new package bans all materials that the authorities consider to be LBGTQ “propaganda,” making such material illegal among Russians of all ages, constituting an offense liable to a fine of up to $6,400 for individuals and up to roughly $80,000 for legal entities. Foreigners could receive up to 15 days in jail or deportation for breaking the law. The main difference between the original iteration of the law and the expanded version is that now, the prohibition of so-called same-sex “propaganda” will apply across all ages and across all media.
The chairman of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, dubbed the new legislation an “Answer to Blinken Law,” referring to a tweet in which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the proposed expansion of the ban.
“It is the best answer to the Secretary of State Mr. Blinken. Stop imposing on us foreign values. You destroyed your values – we’ll see how it all ends, but it will definitely be sad,” Volodin said to the State Duma – Russia’s lower house – after it voted unanimously to pass the amendments in the final reading.
Putin’s enforcement of anti-LGBTQ laws is part of a wider trend of repressive policies as the Kremlin situates itself in opposition to so-called Western values, according to Dan Healey, a professor of modern Russian history at the University of Oxford.
“Those are being knit into a wider social and cultural and defense policy, you know, around so-called traditional values. And it’s just reducing the space within which a non-heterosexual existence can comfortably take place in Russia,” Healey told CNN.
“The consequences for LGBTQ people in Russia are wide ranging and really, really repressive. They become a kind of underground people who are unable to become visible in public space.”
Transgender rights under threat
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 exhausted the nation’s military resources.
“Among other things, it is also diverting attention from what is happening in the country. As soon as it gets a little worse, we have an enemy to point at: it’s because of them that it’s so rough,” said Anton Macintosh of Russia’s first transgender support group, T-Action. The organization was labeled a “foreign agent” – a status close to “traitor” that obstructs operating 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 increasing numbers of people worried that they would not be able to receive proper medical support in their gender transition processes. The process is currently legal if a person passes an extensive review to obtain 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 admitted to the hospital, a transgender person doesn’t have the option to hide their status,” Macintosh said, referencing the physical changes resulting from hormone therapy. “Will there be proper healthcare available for transgender people?”
The less access to support groups a transgender person has, the more terrified and hopeless they are likely to feel, Macintosh explained. Stigmatizing their status causes even more emotional strain, he said.
“We receive a lot of suicidal letters. We do surveys every three months asking about emotional well-being. A lot of people have been sharing hard feelings about how they don’t know how they are going to live,” Macintosh said.
“This is not only 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, referencing the part of the package that forbids the promotion of information that could cause people to want to change their gender assigned at birth.
“It explicitly targets raising awareness about gender transition. And this is, of course, very concerning,” he added.
“When someone (Putin) at this high level of authority spreads these misconceptions, again this increases the stigma that trans people have to face.”
‘Another brick in building an autocracy’
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 a regional head 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 conduct 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 numerous occasions since she got her new passport in 2020, but says this law will complicate further the already difficult life of all LGBTQ people in Russia.
“The law is discriminatory,” she told CNN. “Any kind of information can fall under the term ‘propaganda.’ As it is not clearly spelled out, this will be left to the discretion of the courts.”
“The text of the law rejects the 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.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen and Claudia Otto contributed to this report.