Skip to main content

Anti-gay law shames Putin's Russia

By Tanya Lokshina, Special to CNN
September 13, 2013 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
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
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT