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Putting Russia’s homophobic violence on the map

From what little data we have, it’s clear that homophobic violence in Russia is on the rise. Russia’s LGBT people are victims of ignorance and intolerance — yet the state won’t lift a finger. Russian

LGBT people are attacked during the “Day of Kisses”, an act of protest against Russia’s 2013 bill criminalising “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”. Photo CC-by-2.0: Roma Yandolin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Today marks the International Day against Homophobia. It’s commemorated every year on 17 May, and its goals are clear: to shine a light in the dark, overcome taboos, and share the most up-to-date data and findings about LGBT people and their lives — whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. First and foremost, the day marks a turning point for science — for it was on 17 May when, after a mass of disproved data and studies, the World Health Organisation officially declassified homosexuality as an illness. From then on, homosexuality has not been considered an illness, for the simple reason that there is no scientific evidence to consider it as such.

 That said, the removal of homosexuality from a list of diseases and illnesses by no means fully resolves the immense number of political and social problems faced by LGBT people in a number of countries, including Russia. And that’s why today is a good opportunity to continue this campaign against illiteracy.

In Russia, the attitude of politicians and many ordinary citizens towards LGBT people is often based on ignorance, stimulating widespread prejudice and hatred. The country’s law, passed in 2013, against distributing propaganda about “non-traditional sexual orientations” to minors is one such result. The law presumes that children can become gay or lesbian simply from reading a newspaper article — of course, no scientific evidence to prove this was ever presented by the lawmakers behind the bill. 



In justifying the law, Vladimir Putin declared that while any discrimination or oppression against LGBT people was unacceptable, so was “propaganda”. Essentially, the president called for calm on both sides, hoping that “people of both traditional and non-traditional [sexual] orientations can both stop this aggression”. The problem, however, is that a legislature which restricts the distribution of information about homosexuality for the sake of petty prejudice has itself committed an act of aggression. By doing this, the authorities gave a green light from on high to beat us while we’re down. 

Aggression is a daily fact of life for many gay, lesbian and transgender people living in Russia today

Aggression is a daily fact of life for many gay, lesbian and transgender people living in Russia today. Although fully reliable, scientifically sound data on acts of violence against LGBT people in our country do not really exist, some monitoring of these crimes is carried out by civic organisations, as required by international democratic structures. Arguments by civil society for the humane treatment of LGBT people are rejected by local politicians, who believe that any public-spirited activism by definition serves shady foreign interests. They refuse to see that those suffering in this story are Russian citizens — fellow citizens, who are being unjustly brutalised and victimised. 

There’s much that we can’t know, and may never know. But a survey of open and accessible data, for example, newspaper articles, can give us an approximate scale of this campaign of violence.

Hate crimes against LGBT people, for example, come from a place of deep ignorance and prejudice — not only do the culprits not know anything about homosexuality, but they don’t want to learn about how LGBT people live, what problems they deal with (and if they wanted to, the current circumstances would prevent them anyway). All they know is that they hate them. 

Instead of sensible and mature discussions, idle speculations rule the day, in which homosexuality is declared a disease, a sin, a crime — and everything else under the sun. It’s been forgotten that the lives of LGBT people, like anybody else’s, are diverse and complex — like anybody else, they are not defined nor delineated by their sexuality, and have their positive and negative sides.

This ignorance and its terrifying consequences also manifest themselves in different ways — from the law against “gay propaganda” to outright murders. My colleagues and I at the Laboratory for Sexuality Research estimate that from 2011 to 2016, the Russian media reported on at least 363 instances of crime against LGBT people. These included everything from attacks on gay clubs, domestic killings, extortions and violence during political demonstrations to simple robbery. In the course of this research, we analysed nearly 5,000 different articles in both federal and regional newspapers, news websites and magazines in order to arrive at this rough figure. 

We’ve created a map, too, in which the geographical spread of this violence is clearly visible — from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, LGBT people in Russia are being beaten, humiliated, robbed, and murdered. Of course, newspapers and magazines are a genre unto themselves — they don’t record everything, just those events considered “worthy of publication”. That’s why nearly half of the points shown on this map are murders — tragedies which provincial and federal newspapers have to sit up and notice. Between 2011 and 2016, homophobes murdered at least 149 people across Russia. Going by media reports, gay men are the most frequent victims of all these crimes — in 2011 alone, the victims we know of include 47 gay men, nine lesbians and two transgender people. 

The situation for gay men and transgender people has only deteriorated over the past five years

The situation for gay men and transgender people has only deteriorated in years since. In 2016, for example, 70 gay men and eight transgender people were assaulted. Over these six years, the media published information on at least 393 victims of homophobic attacks. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, not only as the press doesn’t report on every case of violence, but also because some articles don’t give the numbers of victims. One can only guess at how many such incidents never reach the press at all, remaining a private matter and a private trauma for those LGBT people subjected to them. 

Dry figures about criminal statistics are what we call a scientific fact. These are a grim testament to a society that desperately lacks real data and real information rather than sensationalist hatred — and this is a problem which expresses itself in rage at sexual minorities. As it not infrequently leads to physical violence, LGBT people are paying the price for Russian society’s ignorance.

What little data we have help us to shine a light on this urgent issue in Russian society today — data which, let’s hope, can become the basis for informed, humane policy, in clear distinction to a farcical law against “propaganda.”

Want to find out more? Our contributor Dmitry Okrest speaks to four men who’ve recently fled Chechnya’s brutal anti-LGBT campaign


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