Skip to main content

Anti-gay law shames Putin's Russia

By Tanya Lokshina, Special to CNN
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Fri September 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tanya Lokshina's friend told of being gay youth in Soviet town. Doctor told him to keep it quiet
  • But she says in modern Russia being gay did not mean being closeted until new law passed
  • Law bans promoting gay relationships; this flouts charter of Olympics, she says
  • Lokshina: Putin denies discrimination, but message to LGBT people is clear

Editor's note: Tanya Lokshina is Russia Program Director at Human Rights Watch.

Moscow (CNN) -- A friend of mine who grew up in a small Soviet town realized he was gay by age 15. He did not know the word but he could no longer deny that he was sexually attracted to boys, not girls. He had no idea what it meant and felt rather lost. So, he went to see a kind, elderly doctor and hesitantly asked the question. After a stretch of uncomfortable silence, the doctor said quietly, "Take a lot of vitamin C and hopefully it'll get better with time. ... But most importantly, don't ever mention this to anyone."

Homosexuality was a criminal offense under the Soviets, and the doctor was trying to protect his stammering teenage patient. When my friend told me this story many years later, we had a good laugh, agreeing that though things weren't easy for gay people in Russia, you did not have to stay shut in that closet for life. This was before disgraceful homophobic legislation was adopted in June.

Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina

The new law bans dissemination among minors of information promoting the "attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relationships" and providing a "distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships."

It does not define "nontraditional" but it is widely understood to mean "homosexual." And it basically means that you cannot publicly say anything positive about being gay or tell a child that there is nothing wrong with being gay or being raised by gay parents.

It seems that the Kremlin underestimated the prominence of the international LGBT rights movement and the damage the law would do to Russia's image, especially with the Sochi Olympics just months away, the host country being so much in the spotlight.

Russia's failure to honor the Olympic Charter's requirement of nondiscrimination came under scrutiny as the International Olympic Committee continued to seek assurances that enforcement of the law would not affect the games. Russian officials at the highest level have been trying to smooth over the scandal.

Ex-Olympian speaks out on boycott idea
Obama: 'Nobody is more offended than me'
How Russian anti-gay laws impact Olympics
Olympians jeer Russia's anti-gay law

President Vladamir Putin himself said in a recent interview that in Russia "people of nontraditional sexual orientation are not discriminated against" and that they are valued and equal citizens of the Russian Federation. Putin even noted that he was open to a discussion with LGBT organizations. That's welcome, but is he to be trusted?

As is often the case here, it's one step forward and two steps backward. So far no meeting with LGBT activists has been convened and there have been no efforts to have the heinous law repealed. Worse, several legislators have just introduced a bill to deny parental rights to one or both parents of "nontraditional sexual orientation."

The main author of the bill and a member of the ruling party's faction in the State Duma, Alexei Zhuravlev, explained that the bill aims to "protect" children from psychological trauma and pertains to those parents who "do not conceal their same-sex sexual relationships." The message sent to LGBT people is clear: If you don't want your kids taken away from you you'd better keep your mouth shut.

And it is particularly ironic that just days later in his much discussed New York Times op-ed on Syria, Vladimir Putin urged the Americans not to forget that "God created us all equal." People in Russia would've laughed if only things weren't getting bad enough to cry.

When questioned about the discriminatory legislation, Russian officials often chide critics for exaggerating -- this is not the Soviet Union, and gay people live in Russia freely. Indeed, you will not be thrown behind bars for being gay. But the advice given to my friend by that doctor some 40 years ago has become very relevant once again: "...don't you ever mention this to anyone!" In other words, if you want to have a life, don't you dare poke your nose out of that closet.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tanya Lokshina.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT