In December 2022, ten months into the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the Duma extended the scope of Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law forbidding the public portrayal of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’. Previously focused on minors, the prohibited exposure would now apply to any age group. Why would Russia’s parliament do this in the middle of a war?
The amendment might appear to have been a trivial effort to distract the public from Russian military losses in Ukraine. But the restrictions, which render life precarious for LGBT+ individuals in Russia, have a much more ambitious purpose—to consolidate conservative support at home and position Russia as the defender of ‘traditional values’, in opposition to ‘the west’.
The ‘gay propaganda’ law has been at the heart of Russia’s domestic politics and foreign engagement—a symbol of its wholesale rejection of universal human rights. Its extension is but one further step in representing LGBT+ rights as a foreign threat and a Trojan-horse ‘enemy within’.
In 2020, lawmakers went so far as to include an explicit ban on same-sex marriage in Russia’s constitution. And the following year they designated several LGBT+ organisations, including the Russian LGBT Network, an umbrella group, as ‘foreign agents’—a term which in Russian has connotations of spying—accused of undermining the social order.
It is at face value extraordinary that the rights of members of a small minority, in this case LGBT+ individuals, should come to hold such symbolic resonance. Yet as the anthropologist Gayle Rubin has observed, ‘Disputes over sexual behaviour often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.’
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Contestations around gender and sexuality are thus galvanising issues of our time, intersecting with broader geopolitical conflicts in novel and unlikely ways. And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, have mobilised the rhetoric of ‘traditional values’ to legitimise the war in Ukraine.
In a televised address announcing the invasion in February last year, Putin represented the ‘so-called collective West’ as a neo-colonial, existential threat:
‘They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.’
In endorsing the invasion, the patriarch was still more explicit:
‘Donbas has fundamentally refused to accept the so-called values that are being offered by those aspiring for worldwide power. There is a specific test of loyalty to these powers, a requirement for being permitted into the happy world of excessive consuming and apparent freedom. This test is very straightforward and at the same time horrifying—the gay parade … It is about something different and much more important than politics. It is about human salvation, about on which side of God the Saviour humankind will end up.’
‘Marker of modernity’
To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And when the Ukrainian lawmaker Inna Sovsun introduced a bill to legalise same-sex civil partnerships in March, she explained the rationale thus: ‘Because Putin made homophobia such a big part of his political agenda and [Russian] national ideology, people automatically associate him with homophobia. So, if we are different from him, then we should be different in that area as well.’
For better or worse, the rights of LGBT+ people have become what the Australian scholar Dennis Altman has described as a ‘marker of modernity’, increasingly framed as a litmus-test for liberal democracy. This has negative as well as positive implications.
On the one hand—if we take a long view—in many regions of the world there has been rapid progress in recent decades, consolidating rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The flipside of a symbolic association with modernity and progress, as in liberal democracies, is that LGBT+ rights can be misrepresented elsewhere as the antithesis of ‘family’ values.
Russia has been most adept at adopting the mantle of protector of such ‘traditions’, building alliances with like-minded rulers to extend its sphere of influence globally. Elsewhere in Europe, the spectre of LGBT+ rights has become central to the playbook of authoritarian populists.
Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Andrzej Duda in Poland have attacked the rights of LGBT+ individuals, as part of a strategy to build political support on the foundation of conservative sexual politics and undermine democratic institutions. In Poland local authorities have declared themselves ‘LGBT-ideology-free zones’, excluding the Other in an attempt to produce a particular version of Polish society aligned with the vision of the ruling party.
In Hungary Orbán has rallied against LGBT+ rights as a ‘foreign’ and supposedly destructive influence, successfully mobilising a moral crusade, while distracting attention from the erosion of democratic norms, as part of his strategy for re-election last year. LGBT+ rights thus readily become shorthand for broader geopolitical contestations which, while rooted in questions of gender or sexuality, have much wider implications.
At the heart of these acrimonious conflicts is individual autonomy and the relationship of the self to society. At play are different visions of society and the world, and the place of individual rights within them.
On one side is the vision of a social order in which the individual is subordinated to a static notion of ‘culture’ and tradition, brooking no dissent. The competing vision is rights-based and accommodating of diversity.
What proponents of ‘traditional values’ are calling for is a world in which individual freedoms—including bodily autonomy and freedoms of expression and association—are curtailed by the state. In this scenario LGBT+ issues are relegated to the domain of moral stigmas, not elevated as human rights. Hence authoritarian regimes seek to restrict reproductive rights, sexuality education, domestic-violence legislation, legal gender recognition, and innovations in family structures and sexual mores. Those who fall outside gender and sexual norms then become symbolic shorthand.
When Russian lawmakers doubled down on attacking the rights of LGBT+ individuals, that symbolism was primary. Advancing ‘traditional values’ is central to Russia’s ideological justification for its war in Ukraine and activities beyond. Its systemic attacks on the rights of LGBT+ people have proved the canary in the coalmine, portending a much more dangerous global agenda.