In June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia’s legislation restricting open expression and discussion of homosexuality violated the Human Rights Convention. The case was brought forth by three Russian LGBT activists that were arrested and fined for carrying banners stating that homosexuality was natural and not perversion. They challenged their guilty verdicts before Russia’s Constitutional Court which ultimately upheld the law on the grounds of protecting morals. The activists appealed their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
What has now become widely known as Russia’s Gay Propaganda Ban is actually law arising from a succession of statutes introduced at the regional level in 2003 and 2006 and the federal level in 2013. Together, they largely prohibit public reference or promotion of homosexuality. Specifically, the federal statute banned “creating a distorted image of social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.” This legislation denotes a deep and powerful intolerance for the rights of Russia’s queer communities.
Homosexual acts were decriminalized in Russia immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. LGBT citizens, however, have consistently been subjected to discrimination and persecution at the hands of the government. President Vladimir Putin has utilized this issue as a rallying call for his nationalist message. One of Putin’s primary goals in advancing the legislation was that it “positions Russia as a defender of Christian and traditional values and the West as decadent and godless.” Since the propaganda ban, The Human Rights Watch has found an increase in discrimination and violence towards Russian LGBT communities. By positing homosexuality as contrary to Russian ideals and tradition, the ban “sends a message that LGBT people are second-class citizens posing a threat to public morality”
When defending their position to the European Court of Human Rights, Russia’s primary argument was that the ban represented the majority view, and was essential to protecting children’s right to avoid exposure to non-traditional sexual and familial norms. They characterized this purported aim as a human rights concern itself, and argued the ban was necessary to defend children’s morality and health. Lastly, they claimed that since the laws didn’t explicitly ban homosexuality then it could not possibly qualify as discriminatory.
The European Court of Human Rights took a very different position. Not only did they hold that the ban encourages homophobia, but that it is contrary to, “the values of equality, pluralism, and tolerance in a democratic society.” They found that ban indeed violates the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified in Russia in 1998, because it is discriminatory and violates freedom of expression. The court explained that, “the very purpose of the laws and the way there were formulated and applied was discriminatory,” and, “served no legitimate public interest.” In addition, they dispelled Russia’s claim that this ban protected the rights of children. The court said that even if this was the aim, there was no valid justification for the need of this protection, “let alone science-based evidence that one’s sexual orientation or identity was susceptible to change under external influence.”
The judges found six to one that the ban violates the Convention, and ordered Russia to pay the three activists 43,000 euros each in damages. As a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, Russia is obligated to respect and implement the court’s rulings. Russia said they are planning to file an appeal. This ruling solidified the notion that Russia merely decriminalizing homosexuality does not mean their additional laws cannot be discriminatory to the LGBT communities. In the attempt to quash promotion of healthy and equal sexual lifestyles Russia further alienates and stigmatizes this community, likely for nationalist political gain.