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“I beat him up because he's gay. It’s allowed, there’s an anti-gay law”: Kremlin’s military rhetoric sparks rise of homophobia in Russia

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On May 17 St. Petersburg, a man assaulted two women in the subway for “looking like LGBT,” according to a report from the Feminist Anti-War Resistance citing one of the women involved in the incident. The man, Pavel Kukin, noticed the two women on the subway and thought they were members of the LGBTQ+ community. He was traveling with his wife and child.

First, the man unsuccessfully tried to snatch a soft toy from one of the womens’ hands, and then said: “F*cking LGBT, my kid shouldn't see things like that.” Kukin then attacked the girl and started beating her, causing multiple bruises on her shoulder. Her friend suffered a dislocated shoulder and a jaw injury. The attacker was detained and taken to a temporary detention center.

A spike in public homophobia in Russian society has been recorded after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, according to 83% of LGBTQ+ respondents surveyed by activist groups Coming Out (“Vykhod”) and the Sphere Foundation (“Sfera”). As the coordinator of the Coming Out group, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Insider, this is due to the fact that propaganda positions the war on Ukraine as a war on NATO and European values:

“In 2014, there was also a surge of public homophobia. There were statements like ‘Gay Maidan’ or ‘Gayrope,’ and in this sense the surge of homophobia in the public rhetoric of power figures is [being] repeated [once again]. Putin says that we are at war with gender freedoms, with a rotten Europe. This war is positioned not just as a war with Ukraine, but also as a war with NATO, with European values, with gender freedoms, and so on. That is what the Russian authorities are fighting with, and also with LGBT rights, LGBT people etc.”

82% of respondents said that the war had affected them personally. 78% said they felt more vulnerable with the start of the war. 83% said they saw an increase in homophobic attitudes around them. 39% said they noticed an increase in homophobic attitudes among loved ones.

“The growth of homophobia and transphobia is happening in the public arena specifically, in the statements of [State Duma deputies]. People see this, it makes them very anxious, nervous, and they feel bad. That said, it's important to them that these changes aren't as explosive among their [friends and loved ones],” the source told The Insider.

“We asked those who were willing to do so to explain in more detail what they meant. In their responses, they mentioned the 'LGBT Propaganda' law, government statements, statements in publications and [TV] shows. When it came to the growth of homophobia among loved ones, respondents made several points. For example, they said that those who were already homophobic and transphobic became more vocal about the topic. In other words, it was not society that had become homophobic, but homophobic and transphobic people were further emboldened in making such statements. Many emphasized that they were not talking about their friends, but about the older generation that watches TV, which is the target audience for propaganda.”

According to the Vykhod coordinator, despite the growth of homophobic sentiments, the group has not yet seen a surge in violence:

“The growth of homophobia and transphobia has not yet found an outlet in violence. We can talk about the growth of state violence against LGBT people, that is propaganda, but if we talk about the grassroots, the public level, then so far we haven’t recorded the transformation of this discourse into violence. We have limitations as to how far we can compare this year's data with previous data. We have data on St. Petersburg, and there is definitely no increase in violence there. We also have comments from experts from various regions who are former or current employees of LGBT organizations, psychologists and lawyers who have helped or are helping LGBT people in [Russia's] regions. They say that LGBT people still face violence, but at the same level as before.
We have recorded an increase in violence since the 'LGBT Propaganda' law was first passed at the federal level, in 2013. There are studies of surveys and statements in courts where people say, 'I beat him up because he's gay. It’s allowed, there’s an anti-gay law.' It is unclear whether the new version of this law will have the same effect. It's not certain that people have felt the difference and anything has changed. On the other hand, if all this continues, all this inflammatory rhetoric, there may well be more violence. We will continue our study, we will conduct it at the end of 2023, and we will be able to confirm or refute this quantitatively.”

However, as Sasha Belik, head of the Sphere Foundation’s advocacy program, noted in an interview with The Insider, this survey shows last year's results, and the 2023 data will likely allow researchers to record an increase in violence, as the “propaganda” law was passed in late 2022, and “was a watershed in legalizing violence against LGBT people.”

“We expect the increase in violence to be at the same level now as it was in 2013, if not more, because there's a flurry of propaganda from television that is being actively promoted. This is one of the few ideological components that can be called the goal of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. We think that this can happen even in larger volumes.
Aside from that, we have a general increase in the level of violence in our society, as people return from the war with PTSD and commit violent crimes, but this is all mostly in the frontline regions. There's also an increase in the number of weapons, because people can just walk out of a [military] unit with a machine gun, it takes a long time to find them afterwards. This is an alarming indicator, and it shows that our level of violence in general is high.”

The survey also showed that the war has led to a deterioration in the financial situation of LGBTQ+ people. This was reported by 69% of respondents. Respondents named the loss of jobs in international companies, limited career prospects, rising prices and decreasing incomes among the other reasons for the deterioration of their financial situation.

Due to international sanctions imposed against Russia, members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced difficulties in obtaining medication. This was mentioned by almost a third of respondents (32%). Access to hormone therapy and antiretroviral therapy (HIV therapy), antidepressants, as well as asthma and mastopathy medications has become difficult.

Many LGBTQ+ people have decided to leave Russia because of the war. Close to 16% of the participants in the study reported leaving the country, with 60% of respondents having left Russia in September 2022 or later. The majority (23%) are currently in the European Union, 16% are in Georgia and 11% are in Turkey. 2% of those surveyed said they had returned to Russia.

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