Why Is Russia So Homophobic?

Communist-era justifications for bigotry don't make sense anymore. What's behind lawmakers' opposition to gays?
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A man attacks a gay rights activist during a gay pride parade in St. Petersburg on June 25, 2011. (Reuters)

The Russian Duma unanimously approved a law on Tuesday that prohibits the distribution of homosexual "propaganda" to minors. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in fines of up to $31,000.

Before the vote, gay rights activists who attempted to hold a "kiss-in" outside the Duma were pelted with eggs by Orthodox Christian and pro-Kremlin activists. Anti-gay protesters also gathered, with one holding a sign that read: "Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!"

The argument that a young person can be "propagandized" into turning gay may seem outdated (not to mention an overestimation of the power of propaganda), but it's actually not out of place in modern Russia.

"Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child's life!" cried one St. Petersburg lawmaker when a similar ban in that city passed last year, seemingly confusing homosexuality and child molestation. Madonna was recently sued for speaking in favor of gay rights during a St. Petersburg concert. When a 23-year-old man in Volgograd revealed he was gay to some drinking companions last month, they beat him, shoved beer bottles in his anus, and crushed his head with a stone.

In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labor, and Stalinist anti-gay policies persisted throughout the 60s and 70s. Gays were considered "outsiders," and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists.

Measures like the propaganda ban show that many Russians still haven't shed that view, even decades after the fall of the regime that kept homophobia in place.

"When the Stalin anti-homosexual law was repealed in 1993, there was no amnesty for those still sitting in prison for sodomy," wrote history professor Dan Healey, an expert on homosexuality in Russia, on Facebook.

Since the 90s, Russians have faced incredible economic turmoil, a loss of public services in many areas, and widespread corruption -- all factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes.

"To the degree that a given society that is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity, it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength," said Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond.

Only 16 percent of Russians today say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 42 percent in nearby (and also formerly communist) Poland.

Interestingly, Russians buck a major trend in modern homophobia: more religious countries are far more likely to be less accepting of homosexuality. But Russia and China seem to reject both God and gays. Russia ranks as one of the least devout countries on earth, with only 33 percent of Russians saying religion was very important in their daily life in 2009:

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But even though Russians aren't churchgoers in the traditional sense, most are still incredibly supportive of the Orthodox Church, which wields power both politically, as an ally of the Putin government, and as a symbol of national pride in much of the population.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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