On May 1 of this year, Russian LGBT human rights activists marched alongside their compatriots in St. Petersburg’s annual Labor Day parade. In a country famous for its draconian anti-LGBT legislation, agents of the Russian state—namely, the police—intervened on behalf of their LGBT nationals. When Vitaly Milonov, architect of Russia’s famous “gay propaganda” law, led a group of supporters to block the LGBT contingent of the parade, Russian police stopped him in his tracks. Milanov had brought a group of children to the parade and used them to claim that the LGBT marchers were violating Russian law by disseminating “gay propaganda.” However, in sharp contrast to the blind eye Russian authorities normally afford LGBT Russian citizens, this time the police ignored Milanov’s claims and instead marched alongside LGBT Russians to protect them from homophobes. This seeming victor for LGBT Russians was short-lived, however, as three weeks later the Russian Duma passed legislation that may shut down the official LGBT rights movement altogether.
A government’s explicit stance on LGBT rights and implicit stance on LGBT civil society organization together predetermine the chances of success for national LGBT rights movements. At the more obvious level, governmental drafting and execution of policies explicitly related to LGBT human rights serve to directly protect or violate the human rights of its LGBT citizens. In March 2015, the Council of Europe (COE) recognized the power of political actors when legally obliging politicians of the 47 COE member states to “ensure that [respect] for human rights is not only a legal obligation but also a shared value…” Further, the COE tasked politicians within its jurisdiction to “refrain from and publicly condemn homophobic and transphobic discourse.” Two months later, however, it is still evident that not all governments adhere equally to this international legal obligation.
However, propaganda laws and anti-LGBT discourse should be taken into account alongside other laws indirectly affecting the ability of LGBT human rights activists to advance their cause. Proponents of a widespread conspiracy theory that non-governmental organizations operate as agents to overthrow the government, countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic have debated or passed legislation that would shut down the freedom of LGBT individuals to freely organize. As Eurasian politicians score cheap political points by scapegoating their LGBT compatriots through explicit laws limiting freedom of expression and through discourse casting LGBT citizens as a threat to the nation, implicit limits to the freedom of LGBT citizens to organize is a particularly strong blow to the LGBT rights movement.
Azerbaijan, ranked Europe’s worst country for LGBT human rights by ILGA-Europe, may offer a glimpse of what is to come for countries that limit the freedom of LGBT activists to organize. In this country, the government does not actively persecute LGBT citizens on the basis of sexual orientation per se, and it even skirmished with Iran in alleged support of LGBT rights during Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision song contest. However, Azerbaijan’s strict regulations on non-governmental organizations and its hostile political climate paralyze LGBT Azerbaijanis’ efforts to advance LGBT human rights in their country. Without foreign funds or the opportunity to establish official organizations, young Azerbaijani LGBT activists struggle to find venues for activities, raise funds for programs, and partner with foreign organizations that may offer trainings or other support. Under different laws, Azerbaijani’s LGBT civil society organizations would be vibrant NGOs with staff working full-time to advance LGBT human rights in the country. However, under the constraints of their political system, LGBT and LGBT ally Azerbaijanis are left on their own to promote LGBT equality in one of Europe’s most homophobic nations.
Governments that support LGBT rights at an institutional level and support civil society organization efforts at the grassroots level provide the preconditions necessary to advance LGBT rights in their countries. In Kosovo, the country’s constitution incorporates a clause prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, and LGBT human rights organizations QESh, CEL, and CSGD collectively co-chair a governmental advisory committee on LGBT human rights issues. In 2014, police marched alongside a group of LGBT human rights activists in the country’s first “Pride” parade, and the government’s pro-European orientation serves as motivation to continue to support LGBT human rights issues.
Meanwhile, the Government of Kosovo’s support of civil organization efforts sets the stage for LGBT human rights organizations to achieve their goals, particularly on the grassroots level. In sharp contrast to countries like Russia and Azerbaijan, Kosovo allows foreign funding for non-governmental organizations dedicated to a variety of causes, including the LGBT human rights movement. In a country where the average citizen earns less than $325 per month, funds from wealthier countries serve as the lifeblood to keep the LGBT rights movement alive. With the help of funds primarily from foreign sources, Kosovo’s LGBT rights carry out programs like sensitizing schoolteachers to LGBT issues and raising LGBT awareness among state justice officials.
Governmental action related to LGBT human rights is rarely simply “for” or “against.” Rather, governmental pride and prejudice toward LGBT human rights should be measured both by its explicit treatment of the subject at the political level and the conditions it sets for activists to produce change at a grassroots level. As Russian police protected activists in St. Petersburg, politicians prepared the country’s most anti-LGBT legislation to-date. As Azerbaijan refrains from officially legislating against its LGBT citizens, its political environment prevents the country’s LGBT rights movement from catching fire. Propaganda laws and hateful rhetoric should be condemned, but it would be a mistake to make these the sole basis to criticize a government’s LGBT human rights record.