RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday banned the “international LGBT public movement” as an extremist organization — even though the alleged movement has no organizational structure, leaders, membership, website or address.
While seemingly preposterous — given that there is no such organized movement — the Russian ban nonetheless could have sweeping implications for LGBTQ+ people in Russia. It could be used to prosecute any LGBTQ+ organization, activity, communication or mutual support initiative, including those online.
While critics called the ruling legal nonsense, the Kremlin appears to be banking on global homophobia as a unifying ideology that will align intolerant countries — particularly in the Middle East and Africa — against the liberal West.
In many Middle Eastern and African nations, homosexuality is illegal. Anti-LGBTQ+ polices have long been a populist cause, for example in Uganda, which criminalized same-sex relationships earlier this year, including imposing a potential death penalty for “aggravated” homosexuality.
The ruling, which was delivered in a closed hearing, shocked liberal Russians, and prominent independent Russian media organizations on Thursday displayed the rainbow flag on their social media pages in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people.
Judge Oleg Nefedov ordered that the ban, which followed a motion to the court from the Justice Ministry, come into effect immediately.
The ban will probably force LGBTQ+ groups to operate in secret and could be used against LGBTQ+ people, although the legal implications remain far from clear.
Activists said Russian authorities were using the court system to criminalize and persecute LGBTQ+ people.
A striking element of the ban is its sweeping, amorphous nature, raising uncertainty about what actions and organizations may be targeted as extremist. It is a form of legal obscurantism often used by the regime of President Vladimir Putin, sowing confusion and fear about how to avoid arrest and, potentially, prison.
Renat Davletgildeev, an LGBTQ+ activist, journalist and author of the Russian Telegram channel Gay Dynamite, called the ruling “absurd, extrajudicial, illegal.”
Davletgildeev said the case resembled the absurdist writings of Franz Kafka, Eugène Ionesco or Samuel Beckett. “But this is not the reality in which we exist,” he said. “I can’t fit it in my mind.”
“The illegality of this whole process was observed from the first days,” Davletgildeev said. “We sent both individuals and legal entities a petition to the Supreme Court asking to be made interested parties. We have all been denied.”
A ban could force the disbanding of rights groups such as Delo LGBT+, which provides legal advocacy for queer people in court; Center T, a group representing transgender people; the Russian LGBT Network; and others. Activists who try to support LGBTQ+ people could be charged and imprisoned for 10 years. Individual participants in the movement could face six-year terms.
The wording of the Justice Ministry motion implied that LGBTQ+ people are part of a shadowy global organization with extremist goals set on harming Russia.
The Kremlin has long asserted that the West, particularly the United States and its European allies, are enemies of so-called traditional family values and are responsible for promoting “decadent” lifestyles.
None of the arguments or evidence presented to the court by the Justice Ministry were public, nor was any legal representative of LGBTQ+ organizations permitted to appear to argue against a ban. The court denied an application by representatives of the Russian LGBT Network and others to appear as interested parties.
The secrecy around the court hearing reinforced fear and anger in Russia’s LGBTQ+ communities that authorities are using the judicial system to sow hatred against them, and to smear them as representing “decadent” Western values.
One Russian LGBTQ+ Telegram channel, Guys+, called the judgment a “parody” and an “attempt by the state to humiliate LGBTQ+ people and recognize them as second-class citizens.”
“The trial of all of us is taking place without us,” the group said on Telegram.
A Russian cultural magazine, Discourse, announced its solidarity with LGBTQ+ people and said it plans to publish underground material in support of them.
The ban comes after two previous repressive Russian laws against LGBTQ+ people: a ban on “LGBT propaganda,” which criminalized the spread of any information about LGBTQ+ identities, and a ban on gender transition — both changing a person’s sex in official documents, as well as the use of surgery or hormones.
It comes as Putin is pressing a regressive agenda of “traditional” values, with growing restrictions on abortion and officials urging women’s careers and education to be put aside in favor of having many babies at a young age.
Putin has frequently attacked transgender people and parental or marital rights for LGBTQ+ people as alien to what he calls the “Russian world.”
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the Kremlin was not tracking the controversial court case.
Davletgildeev, the activist and journalist, said that because the hearing was conducted in secret, it was not clear what might constitute extremist behavior. “A gay-okay T-shirt, or a rainbow keychain, or an LGBT Instagram account or a social media post — we don’t know.”
Russian LGBTQ+ organizations were scrambling to publish advice on how people can protect themselves in an environment where the legal implications were murky. Davletgildeev advised LGBTQ+ Russians to flee the country, and called on international rights organizations to help people from those groups find refuge outside Russia.
Pro-Kremlin analyst Yevgeny Minchenko raised doubts about the Justice Ministry motion in comments posted on Telegram before the Supreme Court endorsed the motion to ban the international LGBTQ+ movement: “Is there such an organization? Is it possible to join it? Is there a charter, a program, a leadership and so on? It seems to me that if we are talking about an extremist organization, it must have the characteristics of such an organization,” he wrote.
Minchenko said the legal implications of the ruling were unclear: “Will its nonexistent offices be shut down? There are more questions than answers to the situation.”
Russia’s Supreme Court last year recognized an online movement praising the 1999 Columbine shooting as a terrorist organization, and in 2020 it recognized a Russian youth gang movement, AUE, as extremist.