Anti-gay crackdown looms after Russian Supreme Court bans ‘LGBT movement’
Activists hold a banner reading 'Homophobia - the religion of bullies' during a protest on Red Square in Moscow, on July 14, 2013. The Russian Supreme Court has just ruled 'the LGBT movement' to be extremist and banned it. | Evgeny Feldman / AP

Russia effectively outlawed queer people on Thursday when the country’s Supreme Court declared any act of LGBTQ activism or advocacy to be “extremist” and illegal. Filing a sham case that named no actual defendant, President Vladimir Putin’s Ministry of Justice got the judiciary to ban what it called the “international LGBT movement” in Russia.

In a statement earlier in November, the ministry claimed that state security authorities had identified “signs and manifestations of an extremist nature” of an LGBTQ “movement” operating in Russia, including “incitement of social and religious discord.”

It offered no details or evidence of such incitement and failed to name a single organization, coalition, or individual as perpetrators.

As expected, the Supreme Court—which is an instrument of the all-powerful executive branch—performed its rubber-stamping duty, declaring the “movement” to be extremist and banning it.

The case is part of a targeted effort to rally support among religious voters for Putin and his party ahead of elections due next year. It is also a component of a broader strategy to freeze any expressions of organized domestic dissent.

“The authorities’ move apparently serves a dual purpose,” said Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “It is meant to increase the scapegoating of LGBTQ people to appeal to the Kremlin’s conservative supporters before the March 2024 presidential vote and to paralyze the work of rights groups countering discrimination and supporting LGBTQ people.”

The court held its hearing behind closed doors, with only Justice Ministry lawyers present. There were no witnesses or testimony from the LGBTQ community. Since it concerns their rights, a number of LGBTQ activists filed to become a party to the government’s lawsuit, but their application was rejected by the court.

Human rights activists made the point that the “international civic LGBT movement” does not exist as a single entity and that the use of such a broad and vague definition gives Russian authorities the legal power to crack down on any individual or group they deem to be part of the “movement.”

“Despite the fact that the Justice Ministry demands to label a non-existent organization—‘the international civic LGBT movement’—extremist, in practice it could happen that the Russian authorities, with this court ruling at hand, will enforce it against LGBTQ initiatives that work in Russia, considering them a part of this civic movement,” human rights lawyer Max Olenichev, said ahead of the hearing.

Broad and vaguely written “extremism” legislation has been regularly used by Russian authorities to prosecute critics. Two years ago, the City Court in Moscow outlawed three political groups connected to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, labeling them “extremist.”

Russian law punishes participation in or financing of organizations deemed “extremist” with up to 12 years in prison, depending on which law the accused is judged to have violated. Nationwide “lists of extremists” are reportedly maintained, and any individual who is judged to be involved in such activities are blocked from running for political office.

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Many fear the Supreme Court’s ruling is the prelude to a harsher crackdown on LGBTQ people across the country. For years, Putin has made “traditional family values” a central component of his rule in order to court the nationalist far right and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The country’s parliament has been an accomplice in the effort, with lawmakers passing a 2013 measure to protect children from “gay propaganda.” An expansion of the law last year outlawed any positive portrayal of homosexuals or transgender persons and prohibited any suggestion that same-sex relationships are equal to heterosexual ones in the media or by organizations. In July this year, gender transition procedures were made illegal, adoption by persons who have transitioned were banned, and marriages in which one partner is transgender were annulled.

Russian LGBTQ rights protesters are tackled by police in Moscow, May 16, 2009. | Roustem Adagamov / AP

In most instances, these bills have garnered unanimous support from parliamentarians, including those from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

“There are still some LGBT rights activists here in Russia. But they might well be the last ones,” Alexei Sergeyev, a St. Petersburg-based civil rights activist told a Moscow newspaper Thursday.

The consequences for LGBTQ activism are obvious, but Sergeyev is afraid the ruling gives police a blank check for targeting anyone who has associated with LGBTQ organizations in the past or even simply displayed LGBTQ symbols or been known publicly as a queer person.

“Considering this ‘international LGBT movement’ does not exist, the authorities might start arresting anyone related to LGBT in any way,” Sergeyev said. “Say, if you went to a gay pride event or posted a rainbow flag some years ago, you will be a potential target.”

The government has taken an even sharper turn toward conservative social positions since the invasion of Ukraine last year. The moves are widely seen as an attempt to shift public attention toward “culture war issues” and away from any criticism of the leadership’s military actions.

Like many authoritarian governments worldwide, the Russian state continues to equate LGBTQ rights and activism with “Western” cultural imperialism to rally nationalist, religious, and right-wing support.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.