The origins of Russian gay myths
Most Russians want gays liquidated or ostracized. That’s according to a recent poll that showed hardening attitudes towards all minorities in Russia, but especially towards the country’s LGBT community. Behind Russia’s blossoming hatred for gays are several powerful myths that make up the Kremlin’s narrative of homosexuality as a Western conspiracy aimed at destroying Russian traditions. Over the last four years these myths have emerged as major propaganda themes for media in Russia and beyond. Coda set out to identify four of the most powerful myths and to understand how they were spun into fuel for homophobia.
Myth 1: Pedophile parties are now in power in Europe.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, homosexuality is often equated with pedophilia. Concepts of “tolerance” or “political correctness” carry deeply negative connotations. In September 2013 during his annual speech at the Valdai Club, a televised gathering of a select group of Russia experts, Putin talked about “the excesses of political correctness” which, he said “reach the point where there are serious discussions on the registration of parties that have propaganda of pedophilia as their objective.” The Russian president was apparently referring to a legal case around a Dutch foundation called Martijn, which was established in 1982 to promote the legalization of consensual sex between adults and children. The group had three official members, who tried and failed to register as a political party, and the group was eventually banned by the Netherlands Supreme Court. But none of that was reported in Russia. A week after the Valdai Club speech, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said the information about a pedophile party in Europe “had been verified in the most thorough method, including by our Foreign Ministry,” and the headline “Pedophile parties are active in Europe” became part of the Russian media narrative.
It also spread beyond Russia’s borders, and not only through the media. In a 2015 interview with the BBC, an Orthodox priest in Georgia, Father Iotame, said the West posed a danger because of the “pedophile parties taking over Europe.” He said that he first heard of the European pedophile parties during what he described as a religious “boot camp” organized by fellow Orthodox priests visiting from Russia. The workshops, he said, focused on resistance to the “wave of filth” of homosexuality and pedophilia coming from the West.
Myth 2: Сhildren in Europe are encouraged to masturbate from age four.
In 2014, Russia’s main Channel 1 reported that in some sex-ed programs schoolchildren in Berlin are encouraged to play pantomime depicting orgasms, pornography and sadomasochism.
Sex education in Europe’s schools is, in fact, one of the favorite subjects of Russian state-controlled television stations and one of the most repeated “facts” is that children in Europe are forced to masturbate from age four.
The source is a 68-page document providing sex education guidelines published by the World Health Organization in 2010 that mentioned early childhood masturbation several times along with a variety of other normal psychosexual phenomena that teaching professionals should be prepared to deal with and appropriately react to.
Early childhood masturbation, the guidelines explain, is different from adult masturbation and includes anything from genital touching to sucking a thumb.
“Parents in Lithuania are convinced EU parliament members are trying to pervert their children” reads the headline on the state-owned channel TV Center. The host even awkwardly mumbles an apology before pronouncing out the word “masturbation”. The myth quickly spread beyond Russia and “the news” of “forced masturbation” fomented public outrage in Georgia, Armenia, and throughout the Baltic states. The myth persists in these countries and is often cited as an argument against integration into Euro-Atlantic political and security structures.
Myth 3: Gays are responsible for Europe’s demographic crisis.
Russia’s demographic statistics are dismal: the combination of low fertility and high mortality rates and emigration means the Russian population is shrinking fast. Putin’s solution? Russia, he said in 2014, should “cleanse” itself of homosexuals.
In Russia homosexuality is often portrayed as the ultimate crusade against family, a “rejection of children” as one journalist stated on Russian television and therefore incompatible with Russia’s future survival. To illustrate just how bad homosexuality is for birth rates, Russian television regularly points to Europe. “Europeans are dying out…and gay marriages don’t produce children,” said Putin in the same 2014 address. Popular Russian blogger Dmitry Belyaev has written that European values like “liberal democracy” are destroying “Family and Tradition.” Europe, he wrote in a 2012 post, has replaced God with tolerance and as a result “chose a path to the grave.”
Myth 4: Rainbows subliminally advertise homosexuality to children.
Putin’s 2011 anti-gay propaganda law didn’t ban homosexual acts. It banned propaganda of homosexuality to minors, which legally is exactly as vague as it sounds. Without a clear definition of homosexuality, something as innocuous as rainbow logos on children’s language books or the Park Inn’s multi-colored logo can potentially be considered gay propaganda and put companies at risk of being shut down and fined. While “rainbows subliminally mass advertise homosexuality to kids” may sound ridiculous, the multiple news stories about separate movements to ban rainbows in public places illustrate how many Russians consider homosexuality to be a conspiracy: an infectious idea that can be spread by propaganda rather than a human rights issue or legitimate biological norm.
In 2013, a small region in Russia’s Far East along China’s border came under pressure to change its flag. The region called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast uses a flag that is white with seven stripes in the center, all different shades of the rainbow. The local government debated whether the flag violated the federal anti-gay law. One man was quoted in a news story arguing that since the flag has a rainbow stretching across a white background it actually symbolizes homosexuals surrendering. However, just in case, the regional government decided that the flag could be only used with special permission and rainbows disappeared from buildings and bus stops across the region.
But media coverage of a rainbow conspiracy continued. On the state-owned channel Russia-1, Saint Petersburg lawmaker Elena Babich spoke out against the “aggressive gay” invasion via rainbows. “Massive propaganda and protests — they are simultaneous and everywhere,” Babich warns. The broadcast shows her visiting a bookstore, picking up children’s books, and asking the camera, “Why is a rainbow necessary here?”
Unsuspecting companies can find themselves at risk. In 2012 an activist from Norodni Sabor, an organization set up to protect family values, brought a case to the attorney general over cartons of the Jolly Milkman (“Vesely Molochnik”) dairy company. Discounted cartons of milk featured a Jolly Milkman character carrying pails of milk, his brown cow to the left and a new addition: a rainbow stretching above the fields behind the pair.
In a more recent case, Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg lawmaker and one of the most vocal supporters of the anti-propaganda law, demanded that the General Prosecutor’s office ban from Russian territory an American sports brand’s summer collection featuring rainbow sneakers and T-shirts. The brand, Milonov argued in June 2015, was imposing a pro-gay ideology, depriving Russian people of their own ideas of what is acceptable and what is deviant.
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