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The Source of Russia’s Notorious Hatred for Gay People

A researcher discusses the first-ever large-scale study on Russian homophobia

In Russia, the “Gay Lobby” is seen as a social contagion — highly infectious and spreading fast. “Society believes we can multiply,” says Evgeny Osin, a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. This fear, stoked by politicians and kept aflame by the Russian media, has warped the public’s perception of sexual minorities and bolstered support for state policies that drive the community into the shadows.

That said, Russia wasn’t always a place where gay people feared for their lives. “In the Middle Ages, travelers from Europe were actually surprised by the liberal mores of Russian people,” says Osin. Even when homosexuality was outlawed by Peter the Great, gay members of the royal family were treated as fodder for celebrity gossip, not disgust. Everything changed when Stalin came to power: the Communist leader wanted to consolidate society, and he fought against anyone who was different, labeling them “foreign influences.” Aside from some liberal policies in the 1990s, the situation for gay people has only deteriorated since.

To better understand why this might be the case, Osin and a number of his fellow researchers launched the country’s first-ever large-scale study on Russian attitudes toward homosexuality. The research, involving over 1,200 respondents across two surveys, provides a fascinating window into the minds of average citizens, who no longer view gay people as human beings. I recently spoke with Osin about the most disturbing gay myths he’s heard; what it’s like studying the gay community in a country that’s outlawed all mention of it; and why he’s not hopeful about the future.

It was surprising to me that people in your study viewed gays as this cohesive, conspiratorial group. Have you met people who think like this?
I’ve never encountered these people because I mainly communicate with people from academic circles, but in the speeches of politicians and conservative journalists, you can sometimes hear this cliché about the “homosexual lobby.” When people say it, they usually mean there’s this organized group trying to gain control of society and uproot the heterosexual norm in some way. This is similar to other conspiracy theories that have been attached to Jews or Masons.

This is true across cultures: Whenever you evaluate outgroups, you do so in terms of their strength, size and cohesiveness. These evaluations are usually unconscious and rarely subject to self-inquiry. There’s also the theory of in-group favoritism and out-group aggression; you perceive members of your own group as more positive, nice people, and you view people outside your group as nefarious. You have to be educated to recognize you’re doing this and to compensate for the unconscious bias.

How did gay people come to be seen as a group threat?
Before Stalin, homosexuals were a minority, but they weren’t marked as a social group. Stalin actually associated them with fascism, labeling homosexuals as a corrupting influence on the part of anti-communists movements abroad, and as a ploy by which the bourgeoisie were corrupting youth. Throughout the 20th century, discourse on homosexuality was linked to criminality, and so for much of the Russian people, homosexuality was associated with people in closed institutions such as jails. When people think about homosexuality, their minds still go to ideas about dominance, power and rape, not about love or equal relationships.

And Russians also see homosexuality as a Western invention, no?
Right now, Russian identity is rooted in our conservative norms, and how these norms differ from the rest of Europe. Even though, historically, Russian culture was shaped by European culture, these days Russians feel that European culture is becoming corrupt with all those liberal laws and approaches toward sexuality. You hear, all the time, different scary stories like children being taught about pedophilia in Norway or children being raped in families as if it’s a normal part of the culture. People in conservative political parties spread these stories to affirm the identity of Russia as a besieged fortress clinging to conservative values, the same way the Russian Orthodox church clings to the Julian calendar [a calendar first introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C.], which has been abandoned everywhere else in the world.

What’s the link between viewing homosexuality as a social contagion and believing gay people should be punished?
The logic behind the propaganda law is that homosexuals can multiply by telling other people about homosexuality and converting them from heterosexuals to homosexuals [laughs]. Of course, all the data we have contradicts this interpretation. Unfortunately, though, people who discuss and pass our legislation don’t pay any attention to scientific evidence. They trust their own irrational fears much more.

We found that people who believe homosexuality is contagious also think homosexuals should be punished. On the other hand, believing that homosexuality is a biological disposition, in line with the scientific discourse, is associated with lower fear of homosexuals and lower preference for punishing them, isolating them or trying to cure them medically.

Have you faced any social backlash for your research?
I haven’t had any problems, but our university is probably the most liberal in the whole country. In Moscow, events have attracted violence. Recently, there was a conference on LGBT families — even though this conference was only open to those with invitations, during the second day some people came and tried to beat up the participants. They had to move the conference to a different venue. There’s this kind of social intolerance all the time.

Even yesterday, two men who were married in Denmark tried to register their marriage with Russian authorities. The officials stamped their passports, but after this news was publicized, the government decided that their passports were no longer valid and they even raided their home to get their passports back from them. Now they’re opening a criminal investigation against them for spoiling their documents on purpose, even though their passports were stamped by a government official. This is a completely crazy story that shows how much discomfort people in Russia feel whenever the conservative norm is threatened.

Do you think homophobia in Russia will ever diminish?
Unfortunately, right now there’s this vicious circle where individual homophobia from politicians becomes institutionalized through legal discrimination, which in turn creates a homophobic environment in society and contributes to prejudice in the minds of Russians. This trend is ongoing, even if the government doesn’t choose to make the situation worse by introducing new laws.

Even if nothing changes politically, social homophobia will likely continue because homosexuals are stigmatized, isolated and have no ways to participate in society, unless they’re presented as freaks. It will take several decades to reverse this trend and make people more tolerant again, at least at the level of the 1990s.

On the other hand, Russia is very close to Europe and there’s a lot of exchange: Many people travel to European countries, and they see that homosexuals haven’t conquered them, heterosexual norms haven’t been destroyed and that nothing scary actually happens in countries where gay marriage is legal.