Foreign Agents and Gay Propaganda: Russian LGBT Rights Activism Under Pressure

This article examines the effects of the 2012 foreign agent law and the 2013 gay propaganda law on LGBT rights activism and the strategies that have been developed by activists in response to increased state resistance. Following the political
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  479Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 27: 4 (Fall 2019): pp. 479-496. Lucy Pakhnyuk is an independent scholar with research interests in civil society, democra-tization, and human rights in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. She recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Master of Arts in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Contact: F OREIGN  A GENTS   AND  G AY  P ROPAGANDA : R  USSIAN  LGBT R  IGHTS  A CTIVISM  U NDER   P RESSURE L UCY  P AKHNYUK  E URASIAN  R  ESEARCH   AND  A  NALYSIS  I  NSTITUTE Abstract:  This article examines the effects of the 2012 foreign agent law and the 2013 gay propaganda law on LGBT rights activism and the strategies that have  been developed by activists in response to increased state resistance. Following the political process model, I identify and assess the factors affecting the LGBT rights movement in Russia. Drawing on data collected from interviews with seven activists, I find that state repression has resulted in declining levels of political opportunity and organizational strength. Simultaneously, activists grapple with internal conflicts that impair collective action. In spite of these obstacles, activists continue to push forward and have developed strategies for circumventing state repression. O n April 23, 1993, President Boris Yeltsin signed into law a bill that decriminalized consensual sex between adult men. While this devel-opment was largely driven by international pressure, it was regarded as a significant victory for the nascent LGBT rights movement of post-Soviet Russia. Just ten years later, the Putin administration passed the gay propa-ganda law, banning the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” and signaling the growing legitimacy of state homophobia, or the “totality of strategies and tools, both in policy and in mobilizations, through which holders of and contenders over state authority involve sexual minorities  480   Demokratizatsiya 27:4 (Fall 2019)   as objects of opprobrium and targets of persecution.” 1  Simultaneously, the state has introduced a host of repressive legislation in recent years, crack-ing down on the development of civil society as a whole. In connection with this campaign, the government passed the foreign agent law in 2012, mandating that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) register as foreign agents if they receive international funding and engage in political activity.  Not only does this law subject NGOs to stringent governmental regulations and oversight, but it also invites public denunciation of NGOs, as the term foreign agent carries with it a markedly negative connotation reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda.At the intersection of these trends is the burgeoning LGBT rights movement, which has seen periods of growth, stasis, and decline since its inception in the early 1990s. At present, LGBT rights activists work in a context of shrinking political opportunity and growing risk, as the foreign agent law and gay propaganda law threaten to destabilize the LGBT rights movement and erode its ability to engage in collective action. This article examines the effects of the 2012 foreign agent law and the 2013 gay  propaganda law on LGBT rights activism and the strategies that have been developed by activists in response to increased state resistance. Following the political process model, I assess the development of the contemporary LGBT rights movement, identifying both internal and external obstacles that limit its success and ability to influence the sociopolitical context of the Russian Federation. Drawing on data collected from interviews with seven activists representing five distinct LGBT organizations, I find that increased state repression—as represented by the foreign agent law and gay propaganda law—has resulted in declining levels of political opportunity and organizational strength in the LGBT rights movement. Simultaneously, activists grapple with wavering levels of cognitive liber-ation, as internal conflicts and divisions impair group solidarity and the ability of activists to engage in collective action. Given these obstacles, the LGBT rights movement has been unable to reach its full potential and actively participate in its sociopolitical environment. In spite of these complications, LGBT rights activists remain active, if considerably subdued, and have developed strategies for surviving and circumventing increased state repression.As extant literature on LGBT rights activism in the Russian Federation is decidedly scarce, this article aims to fill in the gaps and contribute to a growing field of scholarship, thereby increasing the visibility of an underrepresented and actively marginalized population. Additionally, this article aims to shed light on the ways in which activists in closed, 1  Michael J. Bosia. 2013. “Why States Act: Homophobia and Crisis.” In Meredith L. Weiss and Michael J. Bosia, eds., Global Homophobia: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 30-54.  Foreign Agents and Gay Pr o paganda 481or closing societies continue to organize despite legal and sociocultural obstacles. While the study focuses specifically on LGBT rights activism, it also seeks to produce more generalizable insights into the development of social movements and human rights activism in contexts of shrinking civil society space. Data and Methods In this article, I draw on data collected from 7 qualitative in-depth virtual interviews with LGBT rights activists. In the initial recruitment phase, I emailed 26 different LGBT organizations in Russia, asking them to distribute an informational flyer about my research and to help me find  participants. Only 2 people responded. After vetting me and confirming my identity, my preliminary contacts circulated the informational flyer to their respective organizations and activist networks. One of the contacts also volunteered to participate in the study. Following the initial recruitment  phase, respondents were recruited through the snowball sampling method. All respondents were professional activists affiliated with separate LGBT organizations. The interviewees ranged in age from 21 to 44 and were from five Russian cities: Samara, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. All respondents had received or were in the process of receiving a higher education. Five of the respondents were male and two were female. All participants were cisgender; no transgender activists were interviewed. Four of the respondents were gay, one was bisexual, one was heterosexual, and the final respondent did not disclose her sexu-ality. The sample represents activists across the hierarchical spectrum, including leaders of organizations and occasional volunteers, and multiple respondents were affiliated with more than one organization. The names of respondents and affiliated organizations have been changed to ensure confidentiality, with the exception of the Russian LGBT Network. As the largest and most active LGBT rights organization in Russia, the Russian LGBT Network promotes a politics of visibility and advocacy; anonymity would undermine the Network’s larger mission and goals.Interviews were conducted from April to June 2018 via the internet using end-to-end encrypted video chat software, ensuring the confidential-ity and security of the respondents and interviewer. Given the virtual nature of the interviews, it was not possible to gain written consent from the  participants. However, a digital copy of the consent form was emailed to respondents prior to the interviews and verbal consent was obtained at the start of each interview. Respondents were given the freedom to terminate the interview at their own discretion. The duration of the interviews ranged from approximately 30 to 90 minutes. The interviews were conducted in Russian and subsequently reconstructed into English. The interview  482   Demokratizatsiya 27:4 (Fall 2019) protocol focused on several themes: 1) organizational activities, 2) effects of the gay propaganda law, 3) effects of the foreign agent law, 4) issues within the LGBT community, 5) strategies for survival and circumvention, and 6) next steps or potential avenues for further activism.While traditional fieldwork is perhaps more common, I suggest inter-net-based methodology as a viable alternative in researching marginalized  populations such as the LGBT community. The internet is particularly important in the context of Russian LGBT activism, as the expansion of the internet has “played a very important role in the development of LGBT identity and community and, consequently, in the development of much needed networks between LGBT activists.” 2  The internet can serve as a means for establishing connections while maintaining anonymity. Additionally, internet-based interviews can provide a further measure of safety and security, as both interviewer and interviewee are able to  participate in a setting of their choosing. That being said, there are risks associated with internet-based research, especially in the current political climate, as the Russian government is pursuing an internet crackdown. 3  In conducting internet-based research, it is vital to ensure the cybersecurity of the researcher, the respondents, and the data collected.Given the limitations of the chosen methodology, this article does not paint a full picture of LGBT activism in Russia. The sample population is small, with only 7 relatively homogenous respondents. This method also poses significant obstacles in terms of recruitment, especially in the context of the Russian Federation, as the government is currently increas-ing internet censorship. However, there are several notable benefits to the methodology used in this study. By limiting face-to-face interactions, the virtual nature of this study allows research subjects to reduce the chances that they are observed by the authorities. Internet-based research also limits the amount of physical documentation linking research subjects to the study and can allow for greater confidentiality and security. Despite doing internet-based research in the midst of an internet crackdown, I have  been successful in securing seven in-depth interviews that provide key insights into my central research questions and have produced new data on a burgeoning field of scholarship. Theoretical Considerations and the Political Process Model Like other social movements, Russian LGBT rights activism is shaped and driven by three key factors. As outlined by the political process model, the 2  Radzhana Buyantueva. 2017. “LGBT Rights Activism and Homophobia in Russia.”  Journal of     Homosexuality  65: 4 (June): 1-28. 3  Human Rights Watch. 2017. Online and on All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Free-dom of Expression , At  Foreign Agents and Gay Pr o paganda 483first factor is the level of organizational strength, which is determined by the ability of a group to effectively mobilize resources, recruit members, garner external support and sympathy, advance collective goals, and so on. In other words, organizational strength is measured by the ability of an organization to effectively achieve its goals. The second factor is the level of insurgent consciousness or cognitive liberation. Through cogni-tive liberation, members of an excluded group of people come to believe that they are marginalized on the basis on their shared identity and that they have the capacity to change their situation. In other words, “before collective protest can get under way, people must collectively define their situations as unjust and subject to change through group action.” 4  The third and final factor is the structure of the political system in which a given group operates and the level of opportunities within that system that are available to the group. This structure is subject to the ebb and flow of  broad socioeconomic processes (such as war, industrialization, widespread demographic changes, etc.) that can either expand or contract the level of  political opportunity available to a social movement—the level of political opportunity ultimately determines whether or not a social movement has the space to effectively influence its sociopolitical context. To summarize, the three factors that influence the emergence and success of a social movement are 1) level of organizational strength, 2) level of cognitive liberation, and 3) level of political opportunity. Conversely, the absence or reduction of these factors—coupled with an increase in repression by movement opponents such as the state—constitutes the main processes of the decline of a social movement. 5  As this model suggests, the more repressive a political system becomes, the less likely it becomes that social movements will be able to recruit new members.Following this theoretical model, recent developments such as the introduction of the foreign agent law and gay propaganda law represent an increase in state repression. In the following sections, I show how these developments have resulted in a contraction of political opportunity and decline in organizational strength of the LGBT rights movement. Simultaneously, I find that there are low levels of cognitive liberation in the LGBT community, further undermining the ability of activists to engage in collective action. Given the obstacles identified in this article, the LGBT rights movement has been unable to reach its full potential and actively participate in—and influence—the sociopolitical landscape of the Russian Federation. 4  Doug McAdam. 1982.  Political Process   and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 40. 5  Ibid.
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