Do Russians give a damn about homosexuality?

Popular support is usually one of the reasons offered in support of Russia’s new anti-gay laws. To what extent does polling actually support such assertions? Alexander Kondakov presents the latest research data. 

The Russian parliament has been debating the issue of ‘gay propaganda’ since last year, and although the final wording of the new law has been softened to make it less explicit, there is no doubt that its discriminatory meaning is the same. The conservative MPs standing behind the controversial laws almost universally claim they are doing so with the backing of the general public, arguing that for most Russians homosexuality is unacceptable and alien. 

Certainly, on first glance, they would seem to have a point. In a survey carried out by VTsIOM, 86% of those polled answered that they would support ‘a ban on homosexual propaganda’. However, the same poll also showed that only 6% thought they had actually encountered any such propaganda (in Moscow and St Petersburg this figure rose to 14%). So you have a muddled and rather irrational picture – support for a ban, but banning something never actually encountered.

The CISR has actually been polling Russians on homosexuality since 1990. Comparison of the data over the years is quite revealing. At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, for example, Russians were asked ‘What should we do with homosexuals?’ Almost half of those polled (48%) answered ‘isolate them from society’, 10% suggested they should be ‘helped’; 16% answered ‘leave them alone’, and 26% were ‘don’t knows’. When the same survey was repeated in 2005, the numbers had changed significantly: 31% of those surveyed answered ‘isolate them’, 10% again wanted to ‘help them’ and 10% were don’t knows, but this time 49% favoured leaving them alone.  In other words, acceptance of homosexuality had risen very significantly. 

If people were presented with only two options, ‘homosexuals should be treated as criminals’ and ‘homosexuals should be left alone’, then the majority in favour of tolerance is even greater: in a poll run in 2002, for example, 36% of respondents supported criminalisation, 64% were happy to let them be. There was no particular difference in response between different social and occupational groups, although people working for the police and armed forces showed the least tolerance.  

On the other hand, when those polled were asked to say how they would define the term ‘homosexuality’, a much more marked homophobic attitude emerged. In a 2001 survey where people were asked to complete the statement, ‘Homosexuality is ...’, 36% answered ‘a form of immorality’; 31% - ‘an illness’; 20% - ‘a sexual orientation’, and 1% -‘a sign of talent’ (12% were don’t knows). These results more or less tally with other research on the subject, such as that done by the Levada Centre,  which has compiled the comparative table below, showing results of polls it conducted between 1998 and 2012.   

These polls show both a decreasing number of people without any view on the subject and an increasing number adopting a position of intolerance, and linking homosexuality to immorality and bad habits. The only unchanging figure represents those who see being gay as a sign of talent. 

Ask a stupid question......

What is interesting is that the more options available to respondents, the more negative the responses received. Surveys are usually designed in such as way as to give people a choice of several answers reflecting disapproval of homosexuality and only one positive or neutral answer. For example, in one survey carried out in 2005 and repeated in 2007, the question, ‘how should the state and the public react to homosexuality?’ prompted the following options: (1) ‘institute criminal charges’; (2) ‘impose a fine’; (3) ‘it should be disapproved of’; (4) ‘the state and the public should not interfere’. So someone who wanted to express disapproval had three options of varying severity to choose from, whereas the one supposedly positive option allowed only one shade of opinion - the liberal position that ‘it is a matter of personal choice’. And if you disagree with that, what do you do – choose between a prison sentence and a fine? 

Surveys are usually designed in such as way as to give people a choice of several answers reflecting disapproval of homosexuality and only one positive or neutral answer.

In these polls it was people living in large towns and cities (apart from Moscow and St Petersburg) who showed themselves most tolerant: 40% of them went for non-interference. In Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as villages and smaller towns (those with less than 100,000 inhabitants) there was a split between the criminal prosecution of gay people and non-interference: in 2005 almost 30% of respondents chose one or other of these options, whereas in 2007 a larger number supported tolerance. Geographically, the North Western district, which includes St Petersburg and its surrounding area, was the most liberal of Russia’s eight federal districts, with 46% of respondents agreeing that gay people should be left alone, whereas the most conservative areas were the Central (which includes Moscow),  followed by the Southern and Siberian federal districts. 

Slanted surveys of this type are normal practice among polling organisations. The most glaring example was one run in 2005 by VTsIOM (a leading social and market research organisation owned by the state and managed by the government), where respondents had no opportunity to express a positive opinion about homosexuality.  People were asked the question: ‘which of the following actions do you feel can never be justified; which can be permitted in some cases, and which should be generally acceptable?’ One example given for appraisal was ‘homosexuality’. So respondents were allowed to choose between three negative options: ‘should be banned’; ‘okay sometimes’ and ‘we can live with it’ – not to mention the fact that homosexuality is described as an ‘action’. 

So what do people really think?

Polls where questions are formulated more neutrally produce very different results. If you ask about attitudes to homosexuality while describing it as an illness or a form of immorality, your answers are likely to be more negative than if you use terminology relating to equality and human rights. For example, in a poll run by the Levada Centre in 2012, 38% of those polled were ‘strongly for’ or ‘for’ a ban on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation (with 36% against and 26% don’t knows), and this more or less mirrors responses to the same question in 2005 and 2007 (though only in 2007 were the ‘pros’ and ‘antis’ level, at 36%). According to Levada figures, 46% of respondents also agreed that ‘gays and lesbians should have the same rights as other Russian citizens’ (and 40% didn’t). In 2005 the figures had been even more positive, with 51% for gay equality and only 35% against. 

These results appear to show that you get more positive feedback about homosexuality if you ask Russians about equality and rights, even though these answers come from the same survey as the negative ones quoted above.       

 

How can a public opinion exist on something which was for so long a forbidden, and even afterwards an unacceptable, topic of conversation?  

What do these figures tell us? About real attitudes to homosexuality in Russia? Of course not. Looking at the results received by the various polling organisations, it is clear that the answers given by respondents depend heavily on how questions are framed. So what we get is less public opinion than the opinions of the people who design the surveys. The majority of Russians probably have no opinion at all on gay matters, and only formulate one when prompted by the questions posed by VTsIOM or the Levada Centre. 

Why have I come to this conclusion? To begin with, we need to take into account the historical and social context, in which homosexuality has been subjected to mystification in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. How can a public (consensual, shared by a certain number of people) opinion exist on something which was for so long a forbidden, and even afterwards an unacceptable, topic of conversation. In Russia, sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, is a sphere of human life that is hidden behind by a veil of shame and secrecy.  In the late 1930s the Soviet government took active steps to eliminate any public discussion of sexuality. The more conservative Bolsheviks defeated, both ideologically and institutionally, their opponents within the Communist Party (many of whom paid the price for their liberal views by being  murdered or dispatched to the GULAG), and a number of reactionary laws were passed, one of them banning homosexual relations between adult males. And after that the very mention of homosexuality, especially in a positive context, was totally unacceptable.  

Research shows that even gay people themselves have difficulty talking about their sexuality; the silence and secrecy surrounding it for so long means that Russian has never developed a gay vocabulary.

The legacy of this silence around anything to do with homosexuality could still be felt in the 1990s. The situation did of course change to some extent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as various previously taboo areas became the subject of widespread discussion on all levels, and newspapers, journals, TV programmes, academics and politicians appeared who could voice a broad range of opinions, not just those approved by the Kremlin. But the state’s attitude to sexuality remained more or less the same (although homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993) and its conservatism on this issue had the effect of marginalising alternative views on the subject. So after the consolidation of the regime’s control over the media an atmosphere of shame and secrecy once more enveloped the whole topic of homosexuality, and the subject was hardly mentioned in the media until 2012, when the government decided to introduce a law banning any ‘gay propaganda’ that might be accessible to minors.

In this atmosphere of secrecy public opinion polls on homosexuality are about as relevant as polls about life on Mars. Many have never developed any opinion about it because they think they have never encountered it. Our own Centre's research shows that even gay people themselves have difficulty talking about their sexuality; the silence and secrecy surrounding it for so long means that Russian has never developed a gay vocabulary. This is closely linked to a second problem: that when the subject is raised in public life, it is usually negative opinions that are heard. So when people are asked to take part in an opinion poll on homosexuality, they are very likely to choose negative options for their answers.

In this atmosphere of secrecy public opinion polls on homosexuality are about as relevant as polls about life on Mars. 

Government officials, at all levels, very rarely pronounce on gay matters, but when they do they inevitably link them with Russia’s demographic problems. Politicians from Putin down have expressed their disapproval, and the media usually follow suit. When newspapers and TV cover anything to do with homosexuality, they mostly choose stories involving naked effeminate-looking men taking part in Brazilian carnivals or European pride celebrations, and invariably conclude that such shameless exhibitions of gayness are not for Russia. And this negative coverage also affects poll results: with no view of their own on the subject, respondents will tend to go for what they think is accepted opinion. 

The picture of gay life depicted in the media, however, bears little relation to reality. Russian ‘gay parades’ are very different from the carnivals that go on in other countries. Our LGBT actions are more likely to come under the headings of ‘blood’, ‘police’ and ‘arrests’ than ‘sex’, ‘partying’ and ‘celebration’. There is also no negative correlation between homosexuality and Russia’s shrinking population – on the contrary, the recognition of same-sex marriage would increase the country’s birth rate, since people in stable, recognised relationships are more likely to have babies, and same-sex couples are not short of ideas about how to make them. But reasonable, objective and positive information about homosexuality is hard to find, and poll results reflect this knowledge gap. In fact, what they show is that most Russians couldn’t care less about the subject.    

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