Let’s face it, Russians are different: Tsarism, Stalinism, Putinism all set Russia apart and have given the West a superiority complex. But, like the rest of us, Russians like to boast about the high points of their culture and history – Tolstoy, the Bolshoi, Sputnik and all that – which they did to awesome effect in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at the weekend.
Not even the most expensive – and possibly most impressive -- Olympic extravaganza to date, however, could obliterate the carping about gay rights that has accompanied the Sochi games. Everyone from UN boss Ban Ki Moon to a little old grandmother in Berlin has been wagging the finger or waving placards at Russia’s terrible homophobic laws.
“More than 200 leading international authors including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen criticised the anti-gay law as well as blasphemy legislation as a "chokehold" on creativity, in an open letter published in Britain's Guardian newspaper,” according to one report.
And in what The Atlantic calls “perhaps the most provocative rebuke to Russia’s limits on LGBT rights”, President Obama has included three openly gay athletes—Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, and Brian Boitano—in the U.S. Olympic delegation, while skipping the Games himself.
So what exactly is it that Russia is doing to homosexuals? Sending them by the truckload to Siberia, or what?
Not at all. According to a BBC resume:
Homosexual relations were decriminalised in 1993 and the age of consent is 16, the same as for heterosexual people. But neither gay weddings nor civil unions are legal. And there is no law against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation – you know, the kind of law that in other countries can get teachers sacked for telling kids that marriage is a heterosexual institution.
On a visit to Amsterdam in April [last year], President Vladimir Putin said: "I want everyone to understand that in Russia there are no infringements on sexual minorities' rights. They're people, just like everyone else, and they enjoy full rights and freedoms."
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's urbane foreign minister, put it like this: "Homosexuality, as you know, used to be a criminal act in the Soviet Union. This article in the criminal code has long been repealed and homosexuals can do their thing absolutely freely and without punishment."
Are they just weasel words? Old Soviet doublespeak?
Well, no. What it means is that gays, lesbians, transsexuals and others (except, of course, paedophiles) can live and love as they please. What they cannot do, says Lavrov, "aggressively promote their values [in, for example, gay pride parades], which are different from those of the majority, and to impose them on children".
This restriction was formalised last June by an amendment to Russia’s child protection law with a clause covering "the propagandising of non-traditional sexual relations among minors". This prescribes fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. These range from 4,000 roubles (£78; $121) for an individual to 1m roubles for organisations, says the Beeb.
Given that school children in Europe, North America and Australasia are being encouraged to consider whether they might be gay, the anti-propaganda law is a reasonable precaution – if you believe, as three quarters of Russians in a poll last year did, that homosexuality is an illness or aberration – again, as reported by the BBC.
As I said, Russians are different. They say what the majority of people the world over probably think.
Does this mean that Russians hate gays? No, any more than people in the West who do not want their children confused by gender lessons in school, or who oppose gay marriage, hate homosexuals. It may be true that unruly youths in a post-soviet Russia that is still finding its way politically and culturally, (just like youths in a Western world that has lost its way, culturally speaking) attack gays. That is wrong. But it is difficult to know, anywhere, just how many real hate crimes there are:
No accurate figures for homophobic attacks in Russia are available but, according to Ilga-Europe's Bjoern van Roozendaal: "There is a worrying trend of violence targeting young people." Activists in Russia recently counted 150 hate videos posted online, he told BBC News. Typically these involve the perpetrators publicly abusing and humiliating gay people. The victims are sometimes lured into traps through fake dating ads on social media."The question of hard and fast statistics about homophobic violence seems perverse," Mr van Roozendaal argues. "The question is, should we delay demanding action until these figures become available?"
It depends, doesn’t it, on whether the action a group like ILGA wants is justice for individuals, or a cultural revolution that would see the right to marry as the only way in which hate crimes could be controlled.
As in many western countries now, that would put that rights of certain adults to make families according to their own desires above the rights of children to be born of, and hopefully raised by, their own mum and dad.
Russia, for all that it gets wrong, is doing the right thing by its children in this instance.
This article is published by Carolyn Moynihan
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