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Russia Moves to Label Gay Rights Movement as ‘Extremist’

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In recent years, L.G.B.T.Q. people in Russia have lived under increasing fear as the Kremlin has ratcheted up measures curtailing gay and transgender rights in tandem with the repressive search for “internal enemies” during the war in Ukraine.

In the latest threat, the Ministry of Justice will seek a court order on Thursday to declare the international gay rights movement an “extremist organization.”

Gay rights activists and other experts say that a ruling in favor would put gay people and their organizations under the threat of being criminally prosecuted at any time for something as simple as displaying the rainbow flag or for endorsing the statement “Gay rights are human rights.”

That prospect has heightened angst and alarm in the country’s already beleaguered gay communities.

“It is not the first time we are being targeted, but at the same time, it is another blow,” said Alexander Kondakov, a Russian sociologist at University College Dublin, who studies the intersection of law and security for the L.G.B.T.Q. communities. “You are already marked as foreign, as bad, as a source of propaganda, and now you are labeled an extremist — and the next step is terrorist.”

President Vladimir V. Putin has sought to portray the troubled, protracted war that he started as a fight to maintain “Russian traditional values.” To that end, the gay communities are often portrayed as a potential Trojan horse for the Wes. And the court case comes months before Mr. Putin is expected to use what he calls his defense of Russian values as a pillar of his campaign in the March 2024 presidential elections.

The government, which filed a lawsuit on Nov. 17 with the Supreme Court seeking to label the gay rights movement as extremist, is likely to prevail.

While a court ruling in favor of the measure would not criminalize homosexuality and would most likely not affect daily life for gay and transgender people, experts said, it would make the work of all L.G.B.T.Q. organizations, as well as any political activity, untenable.

It could be used to mete out jail sentences of six to 10 years to gay rights activists, their lawyers or others involved in any kind of public effort.

The requested designation is also written in a typically ambiguous manner, so it could be exploited by virtually anyone to denounce a gay person as an extremist, such as a provincial law enforcement officer hostile toward gay people or neighbors who covet a gay couple’s apartment, experts said.

Until it becomes clearer how the measure would be carried out, it is difficult to advise gay people in Russia about changing their lives, said Igor Kochetkov, a founder of the Russian LGBT Network, an umbrella organization.

Critics say it is unusual to use a designation meant to target specific organizations against something more amorphous like an international movement. There are a couple precedents, however, specifically two domestic campaigns seen as encouraging youth violence.

In addition, the Kremlin has increasingly slapped the “extremist” label on organizations that it does not like. They include the opposition group organized by Aleksei A. Navalny; the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose presence in Russia is opposed by the Russian Orthodox Church; and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, which the Russian government has accused of spreading Russophobia.

In Russia, measures targeting L.G.B.T.Q. groups started in earnest after 2012, when Mr. Putin returned to the presidency. In 2013, Russia passed a law banning “gay propaganda” directed toward minors and expanded that in 2022 to prohibit anything that, it said, smacked of endorsing “nontraditional relationships and pedophilia” among all Russians.

Last summer, the authorities began issuing fines for what they deemed to be such propaganda in films and television series online. Then, in July, Mr. Putin signed a law banning medical gender transitions or changing genders on official documents.

There is a long tradition of nations at war singling out minority groups, especially gay people, for prosecution, such as Nazi Germany. The effort to build support for the war inevitably involves identifying external and internal enemies, and in Russia the generally negative attitude toward gay people dovetails with this effort, said Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies the ripple effects of the war on Russian society.

A 2016 study showed that a majority of Russians “think about homosexual minorities as a form of disease brought by the collective West,” she said.

This attitude is especially prevalent among Russians older than 65, who are also Mr. Putin’s core supporters. They identify with his promise to return to the Russia of 1970, when the idea of gay rights and fluid sexuality did not exist publicly, she said.

Some Russians applauded the latest move.

“Rainbow days are coming to an end,” crowed one commenter on a channel on a Telegram messaging app, Operation Z, a reference to the war in Ukraine. It was accompanied by an emoji of clapping hands.

Despite all the measures, Russia has maintained that it does not target its gay minority. In recent weeks, Mr. Putin has said at a cultural forum in St. Petersburg that gay and transgender people were “part of society,” while mocking what he called a trend in the West to confer public prizes only on those who celebrate the gay community.

Days before announcing the lawsuit, a deputy minister of justice, Andrei Loginov, testified before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that, in Russia, “the rights of L.G.B.T. people are protected,” saying that “restraining public demonstrations of nontraditional sexual relations or preferences is not a form a censure for them.”

The proposed designation opens the door to the kind of legal and verbal gymnastics that the Kremlin often uses to deny that it is prosecuting a sexual minority group, Ms. Arkhipova said. “They can say to everybody: We are not prosecuting homosexual people; homosexual people are fine — we are just prosecuting extremists,” she said.

Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.

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