As much as we like to consider ourselves as living a civilized society, one of the things that should give us pause is the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, not only in what we might consider less-civilized societies but those, including our own, we expect to be more enlightened. It is sobering to remember that in seventy-six countries worldwide, to be gay or lesbian is a criminal offense and in eight it is punishable by death. Even in countries that could be considered progressive on social issues, there is often open hostility toward LGBT individuals. For example, within the past few weeks, two gay Russian men were brutalized and then murdered for admitting they were gay. One (in Volgograd) was beaten, tortured and sodomized before being killed. The other (in Kamchatka) was killed and his body put in his car and set aflame. Gay activists protesting the first murder were arrested for defying a government ban on protests.
During the same period, a popular Russian television commentator was fired and all references to him on the channel’s website removed because he announced on television, “I am gay, and I am a human being just like Putin and Medvedev.” Currently, the Russian Parliament is considering a bill (already passed in ten regions) that would outlaw “homosexual propaganda.” There seems not to be a counterbalancing enforcement of anti-homosexual propaganda in spite of legislation forbidding it.
Although Russia has had a mixed history when it comes to gay rights, during the past decade, homophobia has become increasingly hostile, driven both by the administration of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. At present anti-gay sentiment is both deeply-seated and wide-spread in Russian society. According to one article, “Russia: the Country that Hates Gay People,” “Russia at large remains extremely homophobic.” According to an extensive Levada-Center poll on Russian attitudes toward homosexuality, 85 per cent of respondents are against same-sex marriage, 80 percent feel LGBT people should hide their orientation/identity, 34 percent classify homosexuality as a disease, 22 percent feel LGBT should be compelled to undergo treatment, 16 percent feel gay men and lesbians should be isolated from the rest of society, and 5 percent say gays should be “eradicated.” These are shocking statistics for a country that enjoys the status Russia does in the world community.
According to a recent study by the Pew Trust, Russia is much closer in the anti-gay sentiments of its populace than other industrial societies and is in fact much more closely aligned with Islamic countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Malaysia and African countries like Nigeria and Uganda.
As in the United States, the anti-gay sentiment in Russia is heavily influenced by the religious right. The Orthodox Church, like its Roman counterpart, considers homosexuality a sin. According to Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Church’s department on liaison between church and society, homosexuality “is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation.” While they would argue otherwise, there is a direct connection between such religiously-affiliated anti-gay rhetoric and the repression, persecution and violence against LGBT individuals. Somehow, Churches which assume a central role in preserving and enforcing morality seem singularly blind to the immorality that results when they choose to hate rather than to love any of God’s children. As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima says in The Brothers Karamazov, “ ”What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Unable or unwilling.
Unlike the Russian Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be moving toward a more open, enlightened and loving position in relation to its LGBT members. That is especially evident in the messages on the Church’s new website, www.mormonsandgays.org. The emphasis there by top Church leaders on love, acceptance, support and compassion, gives one hope that Mormons have turned the corner on this subject, with hate giving way to love as the essential response of Latter-day Saints to LGBT individuals. One can hope that the LDS Church’s growth in Russia might in some small way influence Russian Christians to do the same.