When Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation made headlines around the world, his regime became synonymous with homophobia and the struggle for gay rights in Russia. So why do many Russian LGBTQ members continue to support his presidency?
Six years ago, Karina Krasavina, a DJ originally from Volgograd, founded the L-Word party, a women-only event in central Moscow. She hoped to create a space in which like-minded women could meet, fall in love and feel free. But in the eyes of the Russian law, her job is seen as provocative.
“What I am doing involves certain risks. I can’t agree with recent legislative developments, I think they are wrong” she explained on a break from her DJ set in the club’s dressing room. “But I absolutely support Vladimir Putin when it comes to parades in Moscow. I am personally against gay parades and I don’t want to propagandize.”
A regular L-Word attendee, Yulia Astakhova, complained that she doesn’t feel free in Moscow due to the recent homophobic legislation and society’s enduring prejudice that regards homosexuality as “unnatural.” But when asked about her attitude to Putin and the existing regime, she smiles: “I support Putin. I like my president and I am proud of him. He is strong, he is a leader. He knows what he wants and he takes control.”
Russian politics is never linear. Both Krasavina and Astakhova reflect an identification as LGBTQ and support for Putin’s presidency that is not so unusual, with support for Putin often a proxy for patriotism. This political juxtaposition also reflects the internal divisions within Russia’s LGBT movement as a whole.
At a recent L-Word party, many women were hesitant to talk about politics and activism, nervous about causing more unwanted attention and trouble. Their fear highlights a growing unease with activism in Russia which has deeply affected marginalized and oppositional political groups.
Indeed, some members of Russia’s LGBTQ community view Pride events, parades and gay activism as a potential trigger which could ultimately bring about a dangerous backlash. Often, those that organize marches and parades are viewed with suspicion, seen as naive, reckless and seeking to self-promote while endangering others.
The movement has been hurt by the increasing number of LGBTQ activists fleeing the country. According to statistics from 2015, by the end of the fiscal year, 1,454 Russian nationals filed new asylum applications, up 50 percent from the previous year and more than double that filed in 2012. Immigration Equality reports that their caseloads have jumped from 50 to 60 requests for assistance from Russian LGBTQ people in 2012 to 180 requests in 2014, according to Al Jazeera. Not only has this drained the Russian LGBT community of resources and leadership, state-media reports of fake asylum cases have cast a shadow over activists’ credibility.
“I support Putin,” said a frequent L-Word attendee. “I like my president and I am proud of him. He is strong, he is a leader. He knows what he wants and he takes control.”
In Russia, there is also a lack of cohesion between gay rights and the mainstay liberal, opposition movement. Either such figures — politicians, activists and journalists alike — are prone to homophobic prejudice themselves, or avoid touching LGBTQ issues for fear of being prosecuted under the propaganda law.
Fear and lack of a united front have considerably weakened and divided the LGBTQ movement in Russia, limiting its development and opportunities for open discussion.
Such divisions are not unique to Russia. The American gay rights movement also experienced self-criticism and internal divisions over the tactics and goals of the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. Some LGBTQ activists argued that the campaign diverted attention away from more pressing issues — such as combatting AIDS and transgender rights — and some factions questioned the cultural value of marriage within the LGBTQ community.
So too, civil rights campaigns on behalf of different marginalized groups have a history of cooperation as well as friction. In the US, gay rights organizations have sometimes sparked pushback from some African-American civil rights leaders who argued a gay rights political agenda had unfairly coopted the national conversation on equal rights. And the American suffrage movement bitterly split after the Civil War over passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted voting rights to all men, including black men, but not women of any race.
Text by Francesca Ebel, a Russia-based multimedia journalist. @FrancescaEbel