Russia: Gays and Lesbians Push for Greater Rights, Especially in Provinces
Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 15, 2005
By Claire Bigg
The collapse of the Soviet Union relaxed many
restrictions on alternative sexual practices in Russia, including the lifting
of a ban on homosexuality. But Russian gays and lesbians still consider a
distant dream the rights enjoyed by their counterparts in the West. Life for
Russian gays remains particularly difficult in the provinces, where
homosexuals say intolerance and discrimination is rife.
MOSCOW—Moscow’s City Court yesterday upheld a ruling
denying a same-sex couple the right to register their marriage in the Russian
The appeal was brought by Edvard Murzin, a deputy in
Bashkortostan’s State Assembly. Murzin, who is straight, had hoped to
officially wed a gay man with the aim of highlighting the continued oppression
facing many Russian homosexuals.
Murzin, who began campaigning for gay marriages a year
ago, wasn’t surprised by the court ruling. He told RFE/RL politicians
continue to shy away from the problem, even as hate crimes and other forms of
homophobic discrimination are on the rise.
“When I approached Duma deputies and told them there
was 5 percent of the population who had a different [sexual] orientation and
whose rights needed to be protected, they either ran away or said this would
hurt their image or make their ratings drop,” Murzin said. “No one is
willing to address this problem.”
The fact that the Moscow court even agreed to consider
Murzin’s appeal, however, is a small victory in itself. He said he now
intends to create his own organization in Bashkortostan to protect the rights
In Russia, human rights groups rarely take an interest in
the situation of homosexuals, saying Russia has more urgent problems to
Most Russian gays and lesbians themselves do not expect
immediate change. They say it will be decades, at best, before Russia is ready
to grant them the rights homosexuals enjoy in some Western countries. These
include the right to marry, adopt children, or have parental rights over the
Drawing attention to the problems of homosexuals is
particularly difficult in Russia. Russian authorities are reluctant to discuss
any sexual issues in public, a habit inherited from the prudish Soviet past.
The state long viewed homosexuals as an immoral and individualist fringe.
But in 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin repealed
Article 121 of the Criminal Code outlawing what was called “muzhelozhstvo,”
or literally, “a man lying with another man.” The crime was punishable by
up to five years in prison.
The Soviet Criminal Code did not officially outlaw
lesbian relationships. But gay women ran the risk of losing job opportunities
and even being committed to psychiatric institutions.
Soviet-era taboos and state reluctance to address
homosexuality have left many Russians uninformed about the issue. This is
especially true in the provinces.
Aleksandra Sotnikova is an activist who runs Labris, a
lesbian organization in St. Petersburg. She told RFE/RL that widespread
ignorance is at the root of the homophobic feelings prevailing in Russia.
“The main reason for the strong homophobia in the
country is the lack of information,” Sotnikova said. “All the mass media
do are spread fears which foster ignorance. In the provinces, people still say
that it [homosexuality] is a mental disorder, that homosexuals are rapists,
that they corrupt minors. There are many such myths and misunderstandings.”
Gays and lesbians have achieved a certain degree of
acceptance in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where homosexual
night clubs, for instance, are no longer a novelty. But in more remote towns,
fear of rejection and discrimination leads many gays and lesbians to hide
their sexual orientation from their families, friends, and colleagues.
Edvard Mishin—who was slated to wed Murzin in the
proposed same-sex marriage—lives in Moscow and is the editor in chief of the
gay magazine “Kvir” (Queer) and the website gay.ru. He said that coming
out as gay in a Russian provincial town usually equates with ruining one’s
“The main problems of gays in the regions are
discrimination at work and, above all, the impossibility of confiding in
people close to them. In small towns, information spreads instantly and
afterwards gays can’t find work, and very often lose friends and family,”
Sotnikova, for her part, says it took her family almost
four years of conflict to accept her relationship with her girlfriend.
Russian homosexuals’ fears have also been fueled over
the past few years by several attempts by a group of State Duma deputies at
reintroducing the ban on gays. The deputies described their move as part of
what they called a campaign to restore traditional moral values in Russia.
In June last year, the Duma narrowly defeated another
bill that aimed at banning alcoholics, homosexuals, and pedophiles from
holding seats in parliament.
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