April 21, 2016

The Origins of Homophobia and Gay Myths in Russia



Most Rus­sians want gays liq­ui­dated or os­tra­cized. That’s ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll that showed hard­en­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards all mi­nori­ties in Rus­sia, but es­pe­cially to­wards the coun­try’s LGBT com­mu­nity. Be­hind Rus­si­a’s blos­som­ing ha­tred for gays are sev­eral pow­er­ful myths that make up the Krem­lin’s nar­ra­tive of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a West­ern con­spir­acy aimed at de­stroy­ing Russ­ian tra­di­tions. Over the last four years these myths have emerged as major pro­pa­ganda themes for me­dia in Rus­sia and be­yond. Coda set out to iden­tify four of the most pow­er­ful myths and to un­der­stand how they were spun into fuel for ho­mo­pho­bia.

MYTH 1: Pedophile parties are now in power in Europe.

In Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is of­ten equated with pe­dophilia. Con­cepts of “tol­er­ance” or “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” carry deeply neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. In Sep­tem­ber 2013 dur­ing his an­nual speech at the Val­dai Club, a tele­vised gath­er­ing of a se­lect group of Rus­sia ex­perts, Putin talked about “the ex­cesses of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” which, he said “reach the point where there are se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions on the reg­is­tra­tion of par­ties that have pro­pa­ganda of pe­dophilia as their ob­jec­tive.” The Russ­ian pres­i­dent was ap­par­ently re­fer­ring to a le­gal case around a Dutch foun­da­tion called Mar­tijn, which was es­tab­lished in 1982 to pro­mote the le­gal­iza­tion of con­sen­sual sex be­tween adults and chil­dren. The group had three of­fi­cial mem­bers, who tried and failed to reg­is­ter as a po­lit­i­cal party, and the group was even­tu­ally banned by the Nether­lands Supreme Court. But none of that was re­ported in Rus­sia. A week af­ter the Val­dai Club speech, Putin’spress sec­re­tary Dmitry Peskov said the in­for­ma­tion about a pe­dophile party in Eu­rope “had been ver­i­fied in the most thor­ough method, in­clud­ing by our For­eign Min­istry,” and the head­line “Pe­dophile par­ties are ac­tive in Eu­rope” be­came part of the Russ­ian me­dia nar­ra­tive.

It also spread be­yond Rus­si­a’s bor­ders, and not only through the me­dia. In a 2015 in­ter­view with the BBC, an Or­tho­dox priest in Geor­gia, Fa­ther Io­tame, said the West posed a dan­ger be­cause of the “pe­dophile par­ties tak­ing over Eu­rope.” He said that he first heard of the Eu­ro­pean pe­dophile par­ties dur­ing what he de­scribed as a re­li­gious “boot camp” or­ga­nized by fel­low Or­tho­dox priests vis­it­ing from Rus­sia. The work­shops, he said, fo­cused on re­sis­tance to the “wave of filth” of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and pe­dophilia com­ing from the West.

MYTH 2: Š”hildren in Europe are encouraged to masturbate from age four.

In 2014, Rus­si­a’s main Chan­nel 1 re­ported that in some sex-ed pro­grams school­child­ren in Berlin are en­cour­aged to play pan­tomime de­pict­ing or­gasms, pornog­ra­phy and sado­masochism.
Sex ed­u­ca­tion in Eu­rope’s schools is, in fact, one of the fa­vorite sub­jects of Russ­ian state-con­trolled tele­vi­sion sta­tions and one of the most re­peated “facts” is that chil­dren in Eu­rope are forced to mas­tur­bate from age four.
The source is a 68-page doc­u­ment pro­vid­ing sex ed­u­ca­tion guide­lines pub­lished by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2010 that men­tioned early child­hood mas­tur­ba­tion sev­eral times along with a va­ri­ety of other nor­mal psy­cho­sex­ual phe­nom­ena that teach­ing pro­fes­sion­als should be pre­pared to deal with and ap­pro­pri­ately re­act to.

Early child­hood mas­tur­ba­tion, the guide­lines ex­plain, is dif­fer­ent from adult mas­tur­ba­tion and in­cludes any­thing from gen­i­tal touch­ing to suck­ing a thumb.

“Par­ents in Lithua­nia are con­vinced EU par­lia­ment mem­bers are try­ing to per­vert their chil­dren” reads the head­line on the state-owned chan­nel TV Cen­ter. The host even awk­wardly mum­bles an apol­ogy be­fore pro­nounc­ing out the word “mas­tur­ba­tion”. The myth quickly spread be­yond Rus­sia and “the news” of “forced mas­tur­ba­tion” fo­mented pub­lic out­rage in Geor­gia, Ar­me­nia, and through­out the Baltic states. The myth per­sists in these coun­tries and is of­ten cited as an ar­gu­ment against in­te­gra­tion into Euro-At­lantic po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity struc­tures.

MYTH 3: Gays are responsible for Europe’s demographic crisis.

Rus­si­a’s de­mo­graphic sta­tis­tics are dis­mal: the com­bi­na­tion of low fer­til­ity and high mor­tal­ity rates and em­i­gra­tion means the Russ­ian pop­u­la­tion is shrink­ing fast. Putin’s so­lu­tion? Rus­sia, he said in 2014, should “cleanse” it­self of ho­mo­sex­u­als.

In Rus­sia ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is of­ten por­trayed as the ul­ti­mate cru­sade against fam­ily, a “re­jec­tion of chil­dren” as one jour­nal­ist stated on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion and there­fore in­com­pat­i­ble with Rus­si­a’s fu­ture sur­vival. To il­lus­trate just how bad ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is for birth rates, Russ­ian tele­vi­sion reg­u­larly points to Eu­rope. “Eu­ro­peans are dy­ing out...and gay mar­riages don’t pro­duce chil­dren,” said Putin in the same 2014 ad­dress. Pop­u­lar Russ­ian blog­ger Dmitry Belyaev has writ­ten that Eu­ro­pean val­ues like “lib­eral democ­racy” are de­stroy­ing “Fam­ily and Tra­di­tion.” Eu­rope, he wrote in a 2012 post, has re­placed God with tol­er­ance and as a re­sult “chose a path to the grave.”

Myth 4: Rainbows subliminally advertise homosexuality to children.

Putin’s 2011 anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law did­n’t ban ho­mo­sex­ual acts. It banned pro­pa­ganda of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to mi­nors, which legally isex­actly as vague as it sounds. With­out a clear de­f­i­n­i­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, some­thing as in­nocu­ous as rain­bow lo­gos on chil­dren’s lan­guage books or the Park In­n’s multi-col­ored logo can po­ten­tially be con­sid­ered gay pro­pa­ganda and put com­pa­nies at risk of be­ing shut down and fined. While “rain­bows sub­lim­i­nally mass ad­ver­tise ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to kids” may sound ridicu­lous, the mul­ti­ple news sto­ries about sep­a­rate move­ments to ban rain­bows in pub­lic places il­lus­trate how many Rus­sians con­sider ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to be a con­spir­acy: an in­fec­tious idea that can be spread by pro­pa­ganda rather than a hu­man rights is­sue or le­git­i­mate bi­o­log­i­cal norm.

In 2013, a small re­gion in Rus­si­a’s Far East along Chi­na’s bor­der came un­der pres­sure to change its flag. The re­gion called the Jew­ish Au­tonomous Oblast uses a flag that is white with seven stripes in the cen­ter, all dif­fer­ent shades of the rain­bow. The lo­cal gov­ern­ment de­bated whether the flag vi­o­lated the fed­eral anti-gay law. One man was quoted in a news story ar­gu­ing that since the flag has a rain­bow stretch­ing across a white back­ground it ac­tu­ally sym­bol­izes ho­mo­sex­u­als sur­ren­der­ing. How­ever, just in case, the re­gional gov­ern­ment de­cided that the flag could be only used with spe­cial per­mis­sion and rain­bows dis­ap­peared from build­ings and bus stops across the re­gion.
But me­dia cov­er­age of a rain­bow con­spir­acy con­tin­ued. On the state-owned chan­nel Rus­sia-1, Saint Pe­ters­burg law­maker Elena Babich spoke out against the “ag­gres­sive gay” in­va­sion via rain­bows. “Mas­sive pro­pa­ganda and protests — they are si­mul­ta­ne­ous and every­where,” Babich warns. The broad­cast shows her vis­it­ing a book­store, pick­ing up chil­dren’s books, and ask­ing the cam­era, “Why is a rain­bow nec­es­sary here?”

Un­sus­pect­ing com­pa­nies can find them­selves at risk. In 2012 an activist from Norodni Sa­bor, an or­ga­ni­za­tion set up to protect fam­ily val­ues, brought a case to the at­tor­ney general over cartoons of the Jolly Milk­man (“Vesely Molochnik”) dairy com­pany. Dis­counted car­tons of milk fea­tured a Jolly Milk­man char­ac­ter car­ry­ing pails of milk, his brown cow to the left and a new ad­di­tion: a rain­bow stretch­ing above the fields be­hind the pair.

In a more re­cent case, Vi­taly Milonov, a St. Pe­ters­burg law­maker and one of the most vo­cal sup­port­ers of the anti-pro­pa­ganda law, de­manded that the Gen­eral Pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice ban from Russ­ian ter­ri­tory an Amer­i­can sports brand’s sum­mer col­lec­tion fea­tur­ing rain­bowsneak­ers and T-shirts. The brand, Milonov argued in June 2015, was im­pos­ing a pro-gay ide­ol­ogy, de­priv­ing Russ­ian peo­ple of their own ideas of what is ac­cept­able and what is de­viant.

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