LGBTQ Russians Were Putin’s First Target in His War on the West

In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, the war in Ukraine and his decadelong assault on LGBTQ rights are two sides of the same coin.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A man takes away a rainbow flag in Moscow.
A man takes away a rainbow flag in Moscow.
A man takes away a rainbow flag as a policeman detains LGBTQ rights activists during a protest in central Moscow on May 31, 2014. Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

Standing before a room full of top Russian officials in the ornate St. George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian territories that was bilious even by his own standards. He ticked off grievances against the West, starting in the 17th century, accusing the Western world of creating a “neocolonial system” with a view of destroying Russia. It was a familiar rendition of Putin’s bingo card of geopolitical resentments—and then he transitioned to the issue of gay and transgender rights.

“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction?” Putin asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries?”

It may have seemed like an unexpected diversion, but in Putin’s mind, the war in Ukraine and his country’s decadelong assault on LGBTQ rights are two sides of the same coin. Scapegoated in the state media and portrayed as agents of Western influence, Russia’s queer community was the canary in the coal mine of the wider offensive against the West that was to follow when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.

Standing before a room full of top Russian officials in the ornate St. George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian territories that was bilious even by his own standards. He ticked off grievances against the West, starting in the 17th century, accusing the Western world of creating a “neocolonial system” with a view of destroying Russia. It was a familiar rendition of Putins bingo card of geopolitical resentments—and then he transitioned to the issue of gay and transgender rights.

“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction?” Putin asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries?”

It may have seemed like an unexpected diversion, but in Putin’s mind, the war in Ukraine and his country’s decadelong assault on LGBTQ rights are two sides of the same coin. Scapegoated in the state media and portrayed as agents of Western influence, Russia’s queer community was the canary in the coal mine of the wider offensive against the West that was to follow when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.

“It’s been part of his rhetoric and, more broadly, the rhetoric of the Kremlin and the Russian regime … to explicitly connect geopolitics to gender politics and to the resistance to LGBT rights,” said Emil Edenborg, associate professor of gender studies at Stockholm University.

It’s not just Putin. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made the connection explicit in a sermon in March, shortly after the war began. He portrayed the war as a struggle between those seeking to reject Western values and gay pride parades held as, in his words, “loyalty test[s]” to Western governments.

Putin started pumping gas down the coal mine when he came back to the presidency after switching seats with former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for a term. Putin’s return saw the largest street protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Electoral fraud drove more than 100,000 people out onto the streets of Moscow, but Putin thought he saw a Western hand—specifically then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s—behind the crowds of protesters huddled in sub-zero temperatures.

Putin’s first two terms in office were defined by a brutal counterterrorism campaign in Chechnya and a bump in living standards. But by 2013, the Kremlin needed a new target. A new lexicon of “traditional family values” began to creep into the statements of senior Russian officials and state television. After the identity crisis brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was an attempt to redefine what it meant to be Russian: conservative, religious, and family oriented. More importantly, it defined what Russia was not: individualistic, hedonistic, and Western. It marked the beginning of a deepening relationship between the Russian state and the orthodox church—and the country’s queer community provided a ready target for religious nationalists.

Kremlin officials seized on the idea of banning “gay propaganda,” taking an obscure law that had been gaining steam in regional legislatures since 2006 and passing it at the federal level in 2013. The vaguely worded law prohibits any discussions of homosexuality in places or formats that may be accessible to minors, including in the media and online. It was, as later described by Human Rights Watch, a “classic example of political homophobia” for “political gain.”

The geopolitical dimensions to the Kremlin’s sudden interest in cracking down on LGBTQ rights were evident from the start. “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” Putin said in a speech at the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in September 2013. “They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

The law’s passage was accompanied by a surge in coverage in Russian state media, which dutifully sought to reinforce the idea that queer people posed a threat to the Russian way of life. According to Russian media monitoring organization Medialogiya, reports about homosexuality skyrocketed from just 11 in 2011 to more than 160 in 2013. Hate-filled, offensive, and (more often than not) patently untrue, these reports gave rise to a new vocabulary of “gender fascism.”

Russia’s 2021 National Security Strategy makes multiple references to traditional, spiritual, and moral values. “It explicitly says that preserving the family, preserving gender, are matters of national security,” Edenborg said. “That those who do not conform to heterosexual, cisgender norms or family norms are not only perverse—they are a threat to national security.”

The gay propaganda law in 2013 carved a path that Russian tanks wish they had in Ukraine. Russia has seen a surge in attacks in the years after the law was passed. In St. Petersburg, once considered Russia’s most liberal city, self-described “hunters” took it as open season on the city’s LGBTQ community. The media coverage that followed the passage of the gay propaganda law in 2013 set the tone for the rise in hate crimes that was to follow. “It definitely helped some people to make up their mind about killing other people,” said Alexander Kondakov, an assistant professor at University College Dublin, who has studied violence against LGBTQ people in Russia.

In 2016, Dmitry Tsilikin, a prominent art and culture critic who was gay, was stabbed more than 30 times by a man he met on an online dating site. As the killer left, he took Tsilikin’s phone and locked the door behind him, leaving the journalist to bleed to death in his own home with no way out. In police custody, his killer asked to be referred to as “the cleaner,” according to local media reports. Tsilikin’s death was not recorded as a hate crime.

“In Russia in general at the moment, there is such a high concentration of hatred. You can turn on the TV at any given moment and watch the news. It’s Orwellian, the five-minute hate, where people are told that they need to hate their neighbors,” Tsilikin’s editor, Dmitry Grozny, told FP shortly after the murder. “Over the past two to three years, this hatred has grown in all directions, including, unfortunately, towards gay people.”

Russia’s assault on LGBTQ rights has found sympathetic ears among Christian conservative groups beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union through organizations such as the U.S.-based World Congress of Families, which promotes an anti-LGBTQ agenda around the world, and has long-standing ties to Russia. In 2019, the organization hosted a regional conference in Accra, Ghana, which has taken a sharp turn against LGBTQ rights in recent years.

In 2021, Hungary’s conservative government passed a gay propaganda law very similar to Russia’s while Romania is weighing its own. In Poland, which is both deeply suspicious of Russia but also strongly Catholic, the lower house of the country’s Parliament passed a bill this year outlawing teaching about LGBTQ rights issues in schools.

Russia’s weaponization of gay rights transformed the issue into a new geopolitical fault line, Kondakov said. “It turned out to be an easy way to signal your affiliation with either Western values or anti-Western values.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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