The Social Construction of Russian Homophobia

Published in: July-August 2021 issue.


RUSSIAN state-sponsored homophobia is notorious around the world. The law banning what the government termed “the propaganda of homosexualism” was a revanchist project promoted by Scott Lively and others of the evangelical Right in the U.S. However self-serving their motives, their project was very convenient for the Russian government, which was looking for arguments to justify cracking down on LGBT dissent in a Russian context.

            The law criminalizing same-sex activities was repealed in 1993, and in 1999 Russia adopted the International Code for Diseases-10 (ICD-10), which no longer considered homosexuality a disease. But while agreeing to drop the medical model, the Ministry of Health issued a special order that now defined homosexuality in terms of societal norms. Anything that did not correspond to the norms of heterosexual pair bonding was considered a “disorder of sexual preference,” that is, “any deviation from norms in sexual behavior, regardless of its manifestations and nature, severity and etiological factors.”

            The passage of the “propaganda” law in 2012–13, and the arguments used to justify it, were indications that Russian officials were familiar with social constructionism and with the works of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and others. In fact, the Russian state is currently the major social constructionist body in the world in that it demonstrates the value of social constructionism as a political tool.

            The language of social norms, in contrast to the “born this way” argument of the essentialists, endows society with the right to construct its own norms and to enforce them as it sees fit. Thus while social constructionism is considered a hallmark of free-thinking, progressive people in the West, it has come to be used as an ideological weapon in authoritarian societies.

            A harsh irony in Russia is that what was labeled “propaganda” in Russian was an incorrect translation of the English word “advocacy.” Because of this slippage between the two languages, the meaning of the Russian law turned out to be more comprehensive than the English word “advocacy” would imply. As in English, the Russian word “propaganda” has negative connotations, so that any discussion of homosexuality takes on sinister overtones.

            As a gay activist from Russia who is seeking asylum in the U.S. and who was one of the actors in the campaign against the adoption of the law of 2012-2013, I know all too well what state-sponsored homophobia is all about. As an ex-student in the doctoral program in pedagogy at the Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University, an institution that did not permit me to continue doctoral work because of my focus on what Russians term “gender theory,” I am no stranger to social constructionism. The confluence of these two streams of thought and law are something that I’ve experienced firsthand.


Timofey V. Sozaev, a Russian activist who founded St. Petersburg Community Action in 2014, now resides in the U.S.



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