Opinion: Ukraine war: how Putin’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda is an attempt to build support for the invasion
Just a few months after a new version of Russia’s “gay propaganda” bill was signed into law in November 2022 by President Vladimir Putin, bookshops and libraries removed LGBTQ+ books from their shelves.
Gaming and streaming industries followed suit in December and removed queer characters from their content, and various people started to report nightclub patrons, schoolteachers, and even their own LGBTQ+ family members to the police for allegedly spreading “propaganda”.
This law had banned anything that suggested gay relationships were normal, as well as what it called “gay propaganda” in all forms of media.
Ahead of the tenth anniversary of the first federal “gay propaganda” law being signed by the Russian president on June 30 2013, Putin continues to ramp up his anti-LGBTQ+ agenda as a way of driving support for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. Conscription campaigns have carried a strong appeal to Russian men’s sense of traditional masculinity.
In the autumn of 2022, the Russian government engaged in a massive crackdown on the independent media and the civil society – and this included LGBTQ+ activism. The purpose of a new version of the “gay propaganda” law was part of Putin’s manipulation of the political agenda.
Now, LGBTQ+ people are being prosecuted for “gay propaganda”. In one example, two video bloggers from Kazan, a young queer couple, were prosecuted for sharing videos through social networks discussing gay issues. The case was reportedly based on a complaint that the couple suggestively touched each other, which – according to a BBC report, the prosecution said could cause minors to “desire to change sex”. One of them, a Chinese national, was detained and eventually deported to China. The other vlogger was reported to have been fined 200,000 rubles (£1,855).
The Russian media censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, is working on criteria to help the public more easily identify “harmful” LGBTQ+ information and stop it from circulating. Yet the point of this legislation goes further than its stated aims.
Whenever governments try to spread hate towards an already marginalised section of the population, they are actually involved in a political struggle for the majority’s love and support. They target lasting divisions in society – such as sexuality or race – hoping that they will receive enough political legitimacy in return from various groups that are in favour. This is not specific to Russia and can be seen throughout history, in Nazi Germany, for example.
As Putin tries to consolidate support for his war in Ukraine, the Russian president clearly believes there is value in creating heroes and villains in Russian society: in this case, traditional masculine males who join up as heroes and LGBTQ+ people who are set up to provide a counterpoint as villains.
I have spent nearly a decade analysing this anti-queer legislation. The law officially bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships and (or) preferences and propaganda of sex change” – so it is an extreme variant of “don’t say gay” bill in Florida that bans the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. In 2013, the first version of Russia’s law pretended to protect children from LGBTQ+ content and activism. In 2022, the censorship was extended to the entire adult population.
But the restrictions on LGBTQ+ information, ensuring difficulties in accessing gay books and films have never been its primary aim. Even though LGBTQ+ literature and films, as well as LGBTQ+ activism existed in Russia, it was not particularly visible.
In my recent book, Violent Affections: Queer sexuality, techniques of power, and law in Russia, I investigate the effects of the original 2013 law on Russian society. According to my analysis, violence against LGBTQ+ Russians started to grow significantly in 2013 and doubled by 2015: from 33 victims of anti-LGBTQ+ violence before the “propaganda” law to 68 victims two years after its adoption.
These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because they come from criminal court rulings that I analysed (so these cases were reported, investigated, and prosecuted, even though not as hate crimes). Of those cases, 40% were homicides, the rest were serious injuries and assaults. Only a handful are less violent robberies or assaults. Less violent cases simply didn’t make it to court.
Other scholars have investigated the effects of stigmatising LGBTQ+ people and their self-expression. A 2021 study by US-based sociologist Alexandra Novitskaya suggests that since the discrimination really began to ramp up in 2013, many LGBTQ+ Russians have been forced to emigrate to safer countries.
Those that stay have had to be less open about their sexuality. The aim of these anti-LGBTQ+ “propaganda” speech acts was to generate fear, or hatred, of a minority. But also to create political legitimacy for the powerful, by pitting the majority “us” against the minority “them”.
The original “gay propaganda” law had a very clear political mission: it was supposed to increase support of Putin’s fading popularity. Polls in 2013 revealed that 43% of Russians thought homosexuality was “licentiousness, a bad habit” and 35% thought it was “illness or the result of psychological trauma”. So the law, passed at a time when Putin faced mass demonstrations opposing what many believed to have been widespread voter fraud in the 2011 Duma (parliamentary) elections, was a bid to distract attention and divert people’s antipathy towards an already marginalised group.
Even though dissent has been forced underground, there are some suggestions that discontent is brewing in Russia, particularly at the conduct of the war in Ukraine and mass conscription. Putin’s power base is shaky, and he is frightened of losing it. So once again he is ramping up anti-gay sentiment to attract popular support. It worked before – and may work again.