The cartoon showed two men with two young children, and a lesbian couple holding a baby, a contented cat at their feet. Between the two family units was a rainbow-colored love heart. A caption in Russian read, “Family is where love is. Support LGBT+ families.”
The Russian LGBTQ activist and feminist Yulia Tsvetkova drew the cartoon and posted it on social media in January after hearing about a same-sex couple who had to flee Russia with their two adopted children after being targeted by the authorities.
After sharing other drawings of happy same-sex families on social media, she was charged with violating the notorious Russian “gay propaganda” law. In November, she had already been charged for “distributing pornography” for a series of pictures of stylized vaginas, fined 50,000 rubles (around $700), and placed under house arrest for nearly four months. She was released in March. (The average monthly salary is 39,085 rubles.)
Despite no longer being under house arrest, Tsvetkova remains subject to travel restrictions and still faces a trial and up to six years in prison.
Tsvetkova also faces a fresh legal drama after sharing new drawings of same-sex families, which she did after the release of a homophobic political commercial promoting Russia’s recent constitutional plebiscite, which crudely targeted gay parents.
The authorities formally charged Tsvetkova with violating the "gay propaganda" law again, fining her 75,000 rubles ($1,054). Tsvetkova is planning to appeal the fine. Like the first image, the cartoons simply show images of same-sex couples and their kids.
The propaganda law, introduced in 2013, bans anything considered “propaganda of non-traditional relationships.”
Alexey Kuroptev, a lawyer for the LGBTQ advocacy group Moscow Community Center, told The Daily Beast, “Yulia is facing persecution by the Russian state for openly expressing her views on human sexuality and the role of women that fly in the face with those predominant in the Russian society. We are concerned that bans on distribution of pornography and so-called gay propaganda are ever more often used by the Russian state to silence human rights activists and curtail freedom of expression.”
“In a way, Yulia Tsvetkova’s case is symbolic. It shows how the authorities see LGBT activism. With all the attacks on her, they want to scare and to silence others,” Svetlana Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network, told The Daily Beast.
Tsvetkova, from the city of Komsomolsk-on Amur, which is around 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow, did not return Daily Beast requests for comment.
When asked what could be deduced from the authorities’ actions, Kuroptev said, “I guess it means that the government is striving to force LGBTQ people out of the public space.”
Olga Baranova, project director of the Moscow Community Center, told The Daily Beast, “Of course, this is a difficult test for Yulia, but how the community and people outside the community have supported Yulia gives strength not only to Yulia but to all activists. This shows that people do not agree with the way the government behaves in relation to LGBTQ representatives, to feminism, in relation to any self-expression.”
Kuroptev said the effect of the “gay propaganda” law on culture generally had been quiet and malign. “On the face of it, recent years saw only few cases of gay propaganda cases that made it to court, but on the other hand the law is widely used as a justification for banning any LGBTQ-related public rallies.
"Apart from being discriminatory in its nature the law on gay propaganda lacks in precision, which means that people cannot foresee the legal consequences their actions may entail, for it is impossible to say what exactly constitutes ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’ and thus falls under the law.”
Kuroptev added, “That has a general chilling effect on public figures and media outlets that tend to think better of speaking in favor of LGBTQ people. Businesses are reluctant to back up the LGBTQ movement, for if held to account they face huge fines. Gay parents keep low profile for fear that the propaganda law may be used as a legal excuse for stripping them of their paternal rights and taking away their children.”
In its all-encompassing vagueness, the Russian law echoes the infamous Section 28, introduced by Britain’s Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in 1988, which outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities—and which had a similar silencing effect on what could be discussed in schools and what books could be placed on library shelves. (Section 28 was officially repealed in 2003.)
“The statistics show that since the adoption of this law in 2013, it has not been widely used,” said Zakharova of the Russian law. “In most cases, it is used against LGBT activists. I believe that the main goal behind this law was to make impossible any public discussion on LGBT issues. However, of course this legislation—together with state-sponsored homophobia—triggers violence against LGBT community.”
“We will always support our LGBT+ siblings and their allies in Russia until we finally get rid of those laws,” said Yuri Guaiana, senior campaigns director of All Out. “Yulia is fighting very bravely against this injustice, and we want to help her by bringing the support of our international membership. Yulia’s story epitomizes both the hardship LGBT+ people face in Russia and their extraordinary resilience.”
Tsvetkova’s case highlights the pervasive prejudice endured by LGBTQ Russians in all areas of their lives, with a proposed new law making things even tougher.
On July 14, a draft bill was submitted to the State Duma to amend the Family Code of the Russian Federation “with the aim of strengthening the family institution.” There were protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday against the proposed legislation, and more than 30 people were detained. Guaiana called the bill a “serious threat” to LGBTQ Russians.
The Russian LGBT Network has three main concerns over the proposed bill, beginning with a new box on birth certificates specifying the person’s "sex at birth.” It would not be possible to change this information during transition. At the same time, the proposed legislation is requiring that people who have already changed their birth certificate amend it with the "old" information. It would not be possible to register a marriage without a birth certificate.
Consequently, the Russian LGBT Network says, a person who has transitioned will not be able to marry. Such a marriage would be considered as “same-sex” based on the information in the birth certificate. “We do not yet know how this will affect transgender people who are already married,” the Russian LGBT Network said.
The proposed bill “basically outlaws legal gender recognition for trans and intersex people in Russia,” said Guaiana.
A group of conservative parliamentarians had introduced the new anti-trans bill, said Kuroptev. “It is yet unclear if transgender people would still be able to change their documents in line with their preferred gender if the bill were adopted.”
The draft bill also lays out additional criteria that make it impossible for a same-sex marriage that has been registered abroad to be recognized in Russia.
The Russian LGBT Network has called on people internationally “to spread the news about what is happening and share the information about the proposed legislation and its consequences for LGBT+ families in Russia.”
The organization is also urging the deputies of the State Duma “to hear the civil society and conduct consultations with organizations working with homosexual, bisexual and transgender people.”
“Being LGBT+ in Russia isn’t easy at all,” said Guaiana. “On Pride weekend, a group of brave fellow activists organized separate ‘one-person protests’ in Moscow and St. Petersburg demanding freedom for Yulia. These kinds of protests are perfectly legal in Russia. However, more than 40 people, most of them women, were arrested. LGBT+ people are not allowed to gather at all, let alone celebrating Pride.
Last year, Guaiana said, police attacked a Pride event and arrested at least 12 people—three had to be taken away in an ambulance. This year, All Out created a tool to bring people from around the world together virtually for Pride in St. Petersburg.
A recent report by the Russian Coming Out LGBT group documented 1,066 cases of discrimination and violence in 2019 in Saint Petersburg alone, said Guaiana. Last year, news broke of an anti-LGBT+ blacklist that called for activists and supporters to be hunted down.“The level of intimidation and hate speech against LGBT+ people in Russia is truly shocking,” he said.
“There are few if any laws that concern LGBTQ people directly in today’s Russia,” Kuroptev said. “But the real problem lies in the fact that there are no effective legal remedies LGBTQ people could resort to when faced with discrimination or violence motivated by homo/transphobia. The list of protections under Russian anti-discrimination law does not list explicitly sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression, while homo/transphobia does not normally constitute an aggravating circumstance.
“Violent crimes against LGBTQ people are neither registered nor treated as hate crimes, which makes the general public ignorant of the problems LGBTQ people face in today’s Russia.”
Baranova added that it was not just members of the the LGBTQ community suffering but “all people who think differently from the way the government is comfortable are being persecuted. Representatives of the LGBTQ community are the most vulnerable group because a very aggressive policy is being pursued regarding this group.
“In addition to the homophobic laws that have already been adopted, new bills are constantly appearing that, from different angles, more and more infringe on the rights of the LGBTQ people. The new anti-trans bill also seems to prohibit them from adopting children. In Russia, a law has long existed that prohibits the adoption of children by people who have entered into same-sex marriage in any country.”
The prospect of President Vladimir Putin being in power until 2036 meant even more bleakness for LGBTQ Russians, activists told The Daily Beast.
“We expect no positive changes on the part of the Russian government in the foreseeable future. If anything, further restrictions are likely to be imposed,” said Kuroptev.
“I think that it means a lot for all Russian citizens regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. It means that human rights and freedoms are not going to be seen as important in the country,” said Zakharova.
However, Russian LGBTQ activism continues. “We are now striving to preserve the community and support initiative groups,” Baranova told The Daily Beast. “We try to show people that the LGBTQ community is ordinary people, ordinary families, and showing how the authorities act unfairly. Yulia Tsvetkova is one of the brightest examples.
“We do not have many tools that we can use, but for now, fortunately, we have the internet where we can publish information. We see the history of the struggle for LGBTQ rights in other countries. In many countries, this has been a difficult path. Russia is now in a difficult political situation as a whole. I am sure that everything will be fine, the only question is when it will be.”
Baranova urged supporters outside Russia to share the stories of what is happening to LGBTQ people in Russia.
“A very important tool of those that are available to us is publicity,” she said. “It is important to talk about how the rights of the LGBTQ community in Russia are violated, it is important to talk about the Yulia case. She may go to jail because of the drawings.
“I want to say many thanks to everyone who supports Yulia. It is very important. Regardless of the countries where we live, we are all one big LGBTQ community, and it is very important for us to feel this support from different countries.”