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Like the “gay propaganda” ban, the constitutional definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” will increase discrimination against LGBT+ Russians
Richard Mole is a Professor of Political Sociology at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
During his annual State of the Nation address on 15 Jan 2020, Vladimir Putin announced his proposal to introduce a series of amendments to the Russian Constitution aimed at “improving the organisation and performance of public authority”.
When the amendments were submitted to the Duma for approval, the proposals also included a number of provisions that sought to enshrine Russia’s traditional cultural and religious values, including a commitment to protect the institution of marriage “as the union of a man and a woman”. Any attempt to introduce same-sex marriage in Russia would henceforth be unconstitutional.
Russia is certainly not the only country in Europe to limit the definition of marriage to between opposite-sex couples. A number of EU member-states – including Poland, Hungary, Latvia and Croatia – have introduced such constitutional restrictions.
Unlike in Russia, however, the 2013 constitutional referendum in Croatia, for example, was the result of a bottom-up civil initiative and was opposed by most political parties as well as the government and the president.
A constitutional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman was demanded by conservative civil society actors in Croatia to entrench traditional values in the face of the expansion of same-sex rights and increased support among Croats for LGBT equality, including marriage equality.
In Russia there is no such “threat” to traditional marriage. Support for LGBT equality among Russians is not increasing and rights for same-sex couples in Russia are not expanding – quite the opposite.
No political party in the Duma supports LGBT+ rights and Putin himself has repeatedly made clear his opposition to “so-called tolerance” of gay people, whom he considers “genderless and infertile”.
There was no possibility of same-sex marriage being introduced in Russia and the traditional understanding of marriage was thus in no way ‘in danger’. So why introduce the amendment?
The constitutional amendment defining marriage exclusively in heterosexual terms was introduced for the same reason that the anti-homosexual propaganda law of 2013 was introduced: to delegitimise Western liberal ideas, for which support for same-sex rights is a useful proxy, thereby shoring up support among the conservative majority.
To ensure that opposition to liberal LGBT+ rights resonates with Russian society, Putin frames it as part of a strategy to ensure the continued existence of the Russian nation, something to which he repeatedly referred in his State of the Nation address.
The survival of the physical nation needs a marked increase in the birth rate, to which gay men and lesbians do not contribute, as, according to Putin, “same-sex relationships do not produce children”. To reinforce a specifically Russian identity, the nation needs to define itself against the “decadent West” – in particular, the US and the European Union – and its liberal values. Scapegoating LGBT+ Russians is therefore an effective means of achieving a number of political goals simultaneously.
And what impact will the constitutional amendment have on the lives of LGBT Russians?
In a legal sense, it will have no effect, as same-sex marriage was never on the cards in Russia. The legal impact of the anti-homosexual propaganda law has been similarly limited, having resulted in few prosecutions since 2013.
But the law’s real motivation was never to protect Russian children or the Russian nation. Rather it was to intimidate political opponents and generate an atmosphere of legal disquiet.
The dangerous consequences of the anti-homosexual propaganda law were social, not legal. It created an atmosphere in which gay and lesbian people were constructed as a threat to Russian society, children and national and religious mores, fuelling homophobia and legitimising violence against them, including murder.
The negative effects of the constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage will likewise be in the construction of any desire of LGBT+ Russians to marry as a threat to Russian norms and values. Expect to see homophobia once again rise in Russia.