By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Dec 16 2022 (IPS)
A new law banning LGBTQI ‘propaganda’ in Russia will further stigmatise LGBTQI people in the country and could worsen what is already one of the world’s worst HIV/AIDS epidemics, critics have warned.
The legislation, approved by President Vladimir Putin at the start of this month, bans any promotion of what authorities see as “non-traditional sexual relations”.
Groups working with Russia’s LGBTQI community say the new law – an extension of 2013 legislation banning the positive portrayal of same-sex relationships to minors – will effectively make outreach work illegal, potentially severely impacting HIV prevention and treatment among what is a key population for the disease.
It also comes amid intensifying anti-LGBTQI political rhetoric and a Kremlin crackdown on the minority and civic organisations helping it.
“Since 2014, Russia has been purposefully driving HIV service organizations underground. The new law is another nail in the coffin of effective HIV prevention among vulnerable populations,” Evgeny Pisemsky, an LGBTQI activist from Orel in Russia, who runs the Russian LGBTQI information and news website parniplus.com, told IPS.
Russia has one of the worst HIV epidemics in the world. For much of the last decade the country has seen some of the highest rates of new infection recorded anywhere – between 80,000 and 100,000 per year between 2013 and 2019, although this has fallen to 60,000 in the last two years.
Officials figures for the total number of people infected range from between 850,000 cited by the Health Ministry and 1.3 million according to data from the Russian Federal AIDS Centre. The real figure though is believed to be much higher as the Russian Federal AIDS Centre estimates half of people with HIV are unaware of their infection.
Experts on the disease have repeatedly criticised Russian authorities’ approach to HIV prevention and treatment, especially the criminalisation and stigmatisation of key populations, including LGBTQI people.
Indeed, the new legislation is an extension of a controversial 2013 law banning the promotion of LGBTQI relationships to minors. This was denounced by human rights groups as discriminatory, but also criticised by infectious disease experts who suggested it further stigmatised gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM), affecting their access to HIV prevention and treatment.
Organisations working with the LGBTQI community in Russia worry the new legislation could make the situation even worse.
Gennady Roshchupkin, Community Systems Advisor at the Eurasian Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity NGO, told IPS: “Practice in many countries has proved that increased stigma of marginalized populations leads to increased discrimination towards these groups, and, subsequently, these people increasingly frequently refuse to come forward for [HIV] testing and help.
“Formally, the new anti-LGBTQI law puts no limits on providing LGBTQI people with medical help and examinations. But, of course, the ban on sharing information with anyone about the specific characteristics of their sexual life may significantly decrease the quality and timeliness of testing and care.”
Meanwhile, Pisemsky said outreach work was likely to stop in its current form as provision of some services will now be too risky.
“All outreach work will go deep underground. Even online counselling will be dangerous,” he said.
The law could also impact LGBTQI mental health – research showed LGBTQI youth mental health was negatively affected after implementation of the 2013 legislation – which could, in turn, promote risky sexual behaviours.
“We cannot know what exactly will happen. Use of alcohol and practice of chemsex may increase, and there could be a rise in cases of long-term depression and suicides. But what we can say with certainty is that there will be a dramatic decrease in the use of condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – unprotected sex with an unknown partner is also an indicator of mental and cognitive conditions in the age of HIV – sexual health literacy, and self-esteem among LGBTQI people,” said Roshchupkin.
Meanwhile, international organisations heading the fight against HIV/AIDS have attacked the law, warning of its potentially serious impact on public health.
“Punitive and restrictive laws increase the risk of acquiring HIV and decrease access to services… Such laws make it harder for people to protect their health and that of their communities,” UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said in a statement.
But such warnings are almost certain to fall on deaf ears, at least among Russian lawmakers.
Although homosexuality was decriminalised in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, LGBTQI people face widespread prejudice and discrimination in Russia. The country placed 46 out of 49 European countries in the latest rankings of LGBTQI inclusion by the rights group ILGA-Europe.
These attitudes are fuelled by what many LGBTQI activists say is a systematic state policy to stigmatise and persecute the minority.
Since the 2013 law was implemented, authorities have cracked down on NGOs campaigning for LGBTQI rights, using various legislation to force them to close. At the same time, politicians have intensified anti-LGBTQI rhetoric, and regularly attack the community.
Indeed, the new legislation was overwhelmingly supported in parliament, with senior political figures rushing to defend it as a necessary measure against Western threats to traditional Russian values.
Chairman of Russia’s federal parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said about the law: “We must do everything to protect our children and those who want to live a normal life. Everything else is sin, sodomy, darkness, and our country is fighting this.”
International rights groups say it is clear the law has been brought in for a specific discriminatory purpose.
“There is no other way of seeing it than as an extreme and systematic effort to stigmatise, isolate, and marginalise the entire Russian LGBTQI community. It is an abhorrent example of homophobia and should be repealed,” Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
“This law has a characteristic similarity to other repressive laws adopted in Russia in recent years – the opportunity for its arbitrary interpretation. In an environment that is as repressive as Russia’s is right now, rather than deciding to take the risk of falling foul of the law and speaking openly about relationships or sexuality, people will just remain silent.
“This law emerged in a climate of cumulative repression of human rights and repressive laws across the board, which seek to silence dissent, and, through the force of law, enforce conformism,” she added.
Pisemsky agreed: “Laws like this one are designed to scare people. Fear needs to be constantly fed with something, otherwise it stops working. This law is not the last step in the escalation of homophobia in Russia.”
The effects of the ban, which essentially makes any positive depictions of the LGBTQI community in literature, film, television, online, and other media illegal with stiff fines (up to 80,000 US Dollars for organisations) for breaches, have been immediately visible.
Pisemsky described how HIV service organizations had altered their websites and social media pages to comply with the law, while Roshchupkin said LGBTQI community health centres were removing from their premises homoerotic posters and brochures with explicit depictions of same-sex sexual acts.
Meanwhile, Russia’s first queer museum, in St Petersburg, had to close its doors just weeks after opening to comply with the law, bookshops have cleared their shelves of works dealing with LGBTQI themes and libraries have taken to displaying similar works with blank covers.
It is unclear what other effects the law will have, but some LGBTQI organisations which spoke to IPS said people had been in touch with them asking for advice on emigrating.
Nikita Iarkov, a volunteer with the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, an NGO which helps people with HIV in Russia, said that though he did not think there was yet widespread fear among LGBTQI people in Russia, he is realistic about what the future holds for many of them.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first law discriminating [against LGBTQI people]. This kind of ban is sort of a regular practice now,” he told IPS.
“I hope that clubs in Moscow and St Petersburg will remain safe spaces for queer people, but I think that it will be impossible to have openly queer parties and clubs.”
IPS UN Bureau Report