Russia’s lower house of parliament has approved unanimously a bill that effectively outlaws any expression of LGBTQ life.
The new law widens a ban on “LGBT propaganda” and restricts the “demonstration” of LGBTQ behaviour, making any action or information that is deemed to promote homosexuality – whether in public, online or in films, books or advertising – subject to a hefty fine.
The legislation still needs the approval of the upper house of parliament and President Vladimir Putin, but those steps are seen as a formality.
“Any propaganda of non-traditional relationships will have consequences,” the speaker of the lower house, or State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, said on social media.
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The bill “will protect our children and the future of our country from the darkness spread by the US and European states”, he added.
Activists say the new legislation ramps up the crackdown on “non-traditional” sexual relationships in Russia, with legal experts warning its vague language leaves room for law enforcement officers to interpret it as broadly as they wish, increasing the risk and uncertainty for the country’s LGBTQ community.
Kseniya Mikhailova of the LGBTQ support group Vykhod (“Coming Out”) told the Reuters news agency that adults-only gay bars or clubs would probably still be allowed to function, although perhaps not to advertise, but that same-sex kissing in public might be taken as an infraction.
And she said same-sex couples would begin to fear that their children might be taken away from them on the grounds that they were having a so-called LGBTQ lifestyle demonstrated to them.
Legislators say they are defending traditional values of the “Russian world” against a liberal West they claim is out to destroy them – an argument also increasingly being used by officials as one of the justifications for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Authorities have already used the existing law to stop gay pride marches and detain gay rights activists. Rights groups say the new law is intended to drive those leading “non-traditional” lives, including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, out of public life altogether.
“LGBT today is an element of hybrid warfare and in this hybrid warfare we must protect our values, our society and our children,” Alexander Khinshtein, one of the bill’s architects, said last month.
The legislation stipulates fines of up to 400,000 roubles ($6,600) for individuals and as much as 5 million roubles ($82,100) for legal entities. Foreigners could face 15 days of arrest and subsequent expulsion.
Mikhailova said the original ban nine years ago on LGBTQ “propaganda” towards minors had triggered a wave of attacks against the community, and that it could now expect a “tsunami” because the amendment in effect “says the state is not against violence towards LGBT people”.
Political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said the law aimed to ban anything that showed LGBTQ relations or inclinations to be “socially acceptable” or “equal to so-called traditional family relations or sexual relations”.
“People – authors, publishers, just people – will think twice before even mentioning anything related to LGBT,” she said in an interview from Cologne in Germany.
On Thursday, the European Union also expressed its concern at the bill’s passage.
“These legislative developments fuel homophobia and further deepen the harsh repression of any critical and alternative discourse in the context of Russia’s illegal, unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine,” it said in a statement.
Schulmann said the bill was also a “huge win” for the communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, which had already “assumed the powers of a political police” and was now being given the authority and responsibility to monitor all kinds of information in search of so-called LGBTQ “propaganda”.
Rights groups say they will continue to fight for the rights of minorities even as the space for expression closes.
“We plan on protecting people from this absurd law,” Natalia Soloviova, chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network told the AFP news agency.
“LGBTQ people are not leaving, they still need our help and support.”