News & Ideas  -  Russia’s Anti-LGBTQ+ “Extremism” Ruling: A Global Warning

Defending Inclusive Democracy Democracy around the Globe From Many, We Ivan Lemziakov Yelena V. Litvinov

By Ivan Lemziakov and Yelena V. Litvinov

Russia’s latest anti-LGBTQ+ ruling is a stark warning to all those witnessing attacks on marginalized groups in their own countries. The escalation from homophobic and transphobic rhetoric to the use of an extremism law illustrates that anti-LGBTQ+ policies are simply a political tool. Targeting the queer community, or any marginalized group, is an easy move from the authoritarian playbook to suppress dissent and consolidate power. 

Unless studied closely, the past 20 years of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies blur together, with each being more restrictive than the last. Yet at the end of 2023, the Russian Supreme Court reached a new low when it ruled that the “international LGBTQ+ movement” is an “extremist organization.” Though there is no entity with that name, the intentionally broad label could be applied to any and all queer persons and those suspected of supporting them. In a closed-door hearing with no defendant, the Court determined that this “movement” was “inciting social and religious discord.Punishment for supporting an “extremist organization” can be up to 12 years in prison, frozen bank accounts, and disqualification from running for public office. Simply displaying the “symbols” of an extremist organization (such as a rainbow) can have a penalty of up to 4 years in prison. The court ruling is a setback for LGBTQ+ rights and exemplifies how authoritarians attempt to hold on to power, sow disinformation, and silence opposition. 

Escalating Restrictions and Authoritarian Creep 

The new ruling is only the latest in a steady escalation of Russian anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policy. While ostensibly framed as a return to some mythical “traditional values,” the scapegoating of the queer community has coincided with Vladimir Putin’s efforts to maintain his hold on power. 

Between 2006 and 2013, various Russian mayors attempted regional bans on LGBTQ+ “propaganda.” The bans marked a turning point in Putin’s regime by bringing a crackdown on civil liberties and freedoms that continues to escalate to this day. Also around this time, Putin’s public addresses and speeches began to focus on the theme of family and “traditional values” as a distinguishing feature between the Russian Federation and “the liberal West.” 

In 2013, Russia outlawed the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. Any media materials showing queer relationships in a positive light had to be sealed with an “18+” label, as if they were pornography. This led to a documented rise in hate crimes, which doubled between 2013 and 2015. In response to global criticism against this new law, the government emphasized that the law was only “about protecting children” and “not about imposing any kind of sanctions against homosexuality.” In 2013, Putin claimed, “[sexual minorities] are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way.” The coming years made clear that these repressive laws had nothing to do with the interests of Russian families. Rather, exemplifying a common pattern of authoritarian creep, they were just the beginning of a more expansive wave of repression. 

“Traditional Values” in Putin’s War of Misinformation 

By 2022, Russia had banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among people of all ages, a culmination of antigay rhetoric that had been worsening year by year. An outsider may wonder, Why had the LGBTQ+ community in particular become the target of government-sanctioned hate? Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 made clear the true objective of this campaign. 

Putin actively uses anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric as part of his misinformation campaign to justify the Ukraine war. Talk of defeating “Nazis” in Ukraine has been replaced by calls to defend the Russian family, and the war is positioned as an existential battle against the immoral West. According to one Russian lawmaker, “we are fighting so that in Russia instead of mom and dad there isn’t ‘parent No. 1,’ ‘parent No. 2,’ ‘parent No. 3.’ ” 

In July 2023, the Kremlin used the war with Ukraine to justify bans on transgender healthcare and legal gender change. Abortion access is also under threat. All are framed as a threat to Russia’s “traditional values” and way of life, but the focus on abortion is particularly ironic because in 1920 the Soviet Union became the first country in the world to legalize abortion. 

Sending a Message to the Opposition 

The Russian Supreme Court’s latest “extremism” ruling only went into effect in January 2024. Police raids on LGBTQ+ clubs began almost immediately. Though more repression is inevitably coming, it remains unclear exactly how the new ruling will be implemented. The uncertainty has caused panic, and many individuals have made urgent arrangements to leave the country. In response, Russian LGBTQ+ movement leaders are working to bring international political attention to their situation in Russia in hopes of building greater support for their community and to condemn the persecution of peaceful human-rights activists. 

The broader lesson is that Putin now has another tool for targeting his political opposition and those who dare to oppose his bloody war in Ukraine. Activists beyond the LGBTQ+ community are rightfully concerned that similar laws can be used to target them in the future. 

 Modeling Repression 

Russia models its anti-LGBTQ+ policies worldwide and is setting a dangerous example globally. The draconian laws provide a chilling example of how targeting minority groups can have widespread repercussions while serving as an easy political tool. Creating internal enemies stokes fear and consolidates power. In 2021, Hungary enacted a law that replicated the Russian antipropaganda law. More recently, Uganda passed a cruel antihomosexuality bill. Russia considers scapegoating the LGBTQ+ community such an effective tool that it tried to share its strategies with Sudan in 2019 while advising the Sudanese government on how to quell pro-democracy protests. Each repressive action against a minority group can bring grave consequences that include increased nonstate violence, financial restrictions, and justification for the state targeting of individuals. 

Russia’s escalation in repressions serves as a stark warning for those witnessing a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in their own countries. Targeting the queer community serves as a political tool to suppress opposition, activists, and dissenting voices. 

We must remain vigilant against the extremist laws being used to silence political opponents. And we must remember that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is inseparable from the broader struggle for human rights and democratic values worldwide. 

Ivan Lemziakov is a human-rights defender, who specializes in protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Yelena V. Litvinov is the cofounder of STROIKA, Inc., an organization working across thematic and geographic silos to better connect and resource frontline antiauthoritarian activists around the world. 

From Many, We is a Kettering Foundation blog series that highlights the insights of thought leaders dedicated to the idea of inclusive democracy. Queries may be directed to