Cost of indulgence: Rise in violence and suicides among LGBT youth in Russia

Oleg Kucheryavenko, Kirill Guskov, Michael Walker

Published December 18, 2013 

In June 2013, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure that we argue stigmatizes gay people. The legislation introduces fines of up to 5,000 rubles (US $155) for individuals and 200,000 (US $6,186) for officials who disseminate information about homosexuality among minors on the grounds that “gay propaganda” leads to  “distorted views of sexuality” and the “formation of non-traditional sexual setup.” Therefore, it is now illegal in Russia to view homosexual and heterosexual relations as socially equivalent. The Putin-led Parliament and the Russian Orthodox Church are united against Western liberalism and permissiveness that they argue “corrupts” Russian youth.

The law on “the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” says: “The promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, expressed in the dissemination of information directed at developing non-traditional sexual setup, attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, a distorted notion of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or the imposition of information on non-traditional sexual relationships, causing interest in such relationships if these actions do not have a criminal offense” may lead to legal consequences including fines, detention of foreign citizens for up to 15 days followed by deportation, the suspension of activities of legal entities for up to 90 days, and other measures.

The BBC reported that “supporters of the law argue that it is intended to protect the classical notion of family and traditional values.”1

We believe that this law violates the Russian constitution and basic human rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of speech. All three freedoms—freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of speech—have direct implications on the right to health as our research demonstrates.

Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, a London-based human rights organization, has said, “This ban will deprive young people from accessing information that is of vital importance for their mental and physical integrity. It’s unthinkable and retrogressive in the extreme, that people could be punished for sharing information about public health or education, including on crucial issues such as HIV.”

Prior to the adoption of this law, Mikhail Fedotov, the Chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, also expressed his concern over its constitutional validity. “If the promotion of homosexuality is forbidden, then the promotion of heterosexuality should also be banned, shouldn’t it? If we say that the promotion of heterosexuality is allowed, then we immediately go against the constitutional norm of equality of citizens.”

Putin’s dwindling popularity, or the will of the people?

We argue the new law aligns with a wave of traditionalism aimed at restoring Vladimir Putin’s dwindling popularity, and deflecting social attention away from his failed effort to end corruption. He is positioning homosexuality as a social problem that he can overcome. The campaign re-focuses people’s attention away from corruption and onto the LGBT community.

Some argue that Putin is only building on the sentiment of the people. For example, the results from a recent survey, conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation for the Kremlin, found that half of all Russians condemn sexual minorities, and only 32 percent do not judge sexual minorities negatively; as few as 4 percent agreed that LGBT people share the same rights as everyone else.2 According to this Kremlin-commissioned study, tolerance is higher among Muscovites and other urban Russians, in addition to people with higher education, women, and youth.

This intolerance has also fueled a growing number of homophobic attacks resulting in severe injures, deaths, and suicides among gay people, especially youth.3

Cost of indulgence: Violence

While violent acts are a crime, it would appear that violence against gays is not perceived as violence at all. To understand the nature of anti-gay violence, it is necessary to consider gender roles and expectations in the context of Russian traditional values. Male adolescents report constant pressure to prove their masculinity by committing sexual and violent acts.4 Anti-gay violence allows the male adolescent to reaffirm his commitment by showing his peers what he is not.5 This is linked to beliefs about the superiority of heterosexuality.6,7 Accordingly, the outbreak of violence against the LGBT community, especially youth, has gained momentum.

The Russian LGBT Network documented violence against gay men and lesbians in 2012.8 In a recent Russian urban-based study of 2437 LGBT people of all ages, 56 percent reported having suffered psychological harassment; 16 percent reported  physical assault; and 7 percent reported cases of rape. Released in August, the study confirms that harassment and assault occur with respect to people’s appearance, conduct, manner of dress or simply as a result of belonging to LGBT organizations. Most respondents (73 percent) blamed the regional anti-propaganda laws, introduced months before the federal law in March 2013, for the attacks. Respondents reported that they felt a radical change in the social environment owing to media coverage of the anti-gay laws, which they believed promoted hatred and bias.

The LGBT Network’s report, though conducted six months before the federal anti-gay law was signed, found that distrust of police was high.  Discrimination in the workplace had been experienced by 43 percent of gays and lesbians, and 29 percent reported concealing their sexual orientation. Eight percent experienced the violation of parental rights, and eight percent had been detained for being gay once or more in their lifetime. It was also found that 77 percent of survey respondents completely distrust the police, and there were reports of physical and verbal abuse by the police.

Being homophobic is becoming normalized in Russia. We attribute recent violence towards Russia’s LGBT community to the Russian government’s anti-gay media campaign which has included strongly worded anti-gay statements by senior broadcasters on state television. These statements have been inflammatory, inaccurate and indefensible. Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova claimed on national radio that “in some cases homosexuality should be regarded as a [mental health] disease”.9 One homophobic group stated on the social network VKontakte that “hunting season” on gays is now open: at least 26 assaults with seven resulting in death have been reported since the anti-gay bill became law. The group regularly posts videos, produced by a Russian fascist group, on its website, showing sexual minorities being beaten up, and openly inciting the murder of gays and lesbians, whom are described as “freaks of nature.” The group also allowed discussion on how LGBT people should be tortured and killed. Anna Nemtsova, a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, reports that “Terrifying videos that show members of extreme right-wing groups torturing gay men have begun to surface on Russian websites.”

LGBT health disparities increase

There is a long history of LGBT people’s right to healthcare  being violated, which in many countries continues to shape their health-seeking behavior and trust in health care providers. The vulnerability of LGBT people is often exacerbated by disrespectful attitudes, discriminatory policies, prejudices and, at times, refusal of medical care. This stigmatization and abuse of rights, in turn, leads to a poorer health outcomes and severe consequences, as in the case with LGBT living with HIV.

The authors conducted a survey to determine whether the anti-propaganda laws have increased the occurrence of refusal of health care to LGBT. Of the 1385 LGBT respondents, almost 72 percent reported having experienced cases of discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity after coming out to a doctor. These cases included total refusal of essential care, medical personnel refusing to touch them, the use of excessive precautions, and being blamed for an HIV positive status and a “sinful lifestyle.” Over half agreed that health care providers’ attitudes had worsened since the legislation had been passed. Nearly 92 percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming respondents had one or more of cases of discrimination in hospital settings; and 72 percent of respondents living with HIV were openly refused medical care one or more times after the adoption of anti-gay laws. Most LGBT respondents did not know how to enact their patient rights, and 42 percent said they would likely no longer use medical services. These preliminary results suggest the health of LGBT is seriously threatened by legislative changes, and this is a denial of their right to health.

The number of new HIV infections has been increasing in the Russian Federation in recent years from less than 40,000 in 2006 to over 60,000 in 2011.10 Despite this, the state has not undertaken any serious effective preventive measures to provide LGBT people with effective and culturally appropriate messages about HIV prevention.Soon after the anti-propaganda law had been signed, Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare, stated that “gay men and those [men and women] involved in prostitution should be promptly subjected to HIV testing, as they account for the significant number of new HIV cases.”11 National reports, however, confirm that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is scaling up mostly because of injection drug use and unprotected heterosexual intercourse. 12,13

Suicides on rise

Because reliable data does not exist, we do not know whether LGBT youth die by suicide more frequently than their straight peers; however, many studies have identified suicide attempts and suicidal ideation in LGBT youth. Remafedi and colleagues found that 28.1 percent of gay and bisexual males in grade 7 through 12 had attempted suicide at least once compared to 4.2 percent of their heterosexual peers.14 Marshal and colleagues found that LGBT youth reported significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation (OR = 2.92) and depression  compared with their heterosexual peers.15 Most literature reviews on LGBT suicides conclude that LGBT youth have a significantly higher rate of attempting suicide than heterosexual youth.16,17,18 A recent study found that 22 percent of sexual minority youth in the 11th grade attempted suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 4 percent of heterosexual youth. The seriousness of suicide attempts by LGBT and heterosexual youth has also been compared; Safren and Heimberg found that 58 percent of gay people who had attempted suicide reported that they had really hoped to die. 19,20 In contrast, only 33 percent of heterosexuals who had attempted suicide reported that they had really hoped to die. There is strong evidence that sexual minority-specific victimization is partly responsible for these mental health disparities.21 When the boys in Bryansk were asked after unsuccessful suicide attempts why they had attempted to kill themselves, they answered , “There wasn’t enough positive stuff in their lives.”22

Gay youth in Russia already face a depressing social climate in that little support is provided by parents, teachers, or peers, and there are few resources for gay young people. Until authorities—including those at the highest levels—see suicide of LGBT youth as a valid problem, and a human rights failing, efforts towards prevention are unlikely to be effective, and the problems of suicide, depression, drug abuse and other illnesses among gay youth will likely increase in severity.

The non acceptance of LGBT people as equal to all others is a human rights failing in Russia that is having severe implications on their human rights, including the right to health. Our research has confirmed LGBT are being discriminated against and marginalized, resulting in increased death and ill health, as well as overall diminished quality of life and security. Gays and lesbians have been the direct victims of this approach, but by extension, everyone suffers—especially other minorities, including women and youth. Such open violation of human rights in a state as powerful as Russia is a disturbing and dangerous prospect.

Oleg Kucheryavenko, MD, MPH, is a student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Kirill Guskov is an International Relations student and columnist at modernpolitics.r.

Michael Walker, journalist, is a columnist for the InSerbia and consultant at the Vojvodina Foundation.

Please address author correspondence to the corresponding author, Oleg Kucheryavenko, email:


1. The BBC Russian Service, The State Duma adopted a law on “non-traditional sexual relations” (June 2013). Available at

2. The Public Opinion Foundation. Societal attitudes toward homosexuality (Survey). Available at

3. The BBC Russian Service, Sociologists documented the growth of homophobia in Russia (May 2013). Available at

4. J. Harry, “Conceptualizing Anti-Gay Violence,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 5/3 (1990), pp. 350–358.

5. M. Ramirez, A. Paik, K. Sanchagrin et al., “Violent peers, network centrality, and intimate partner violence perpetration by young men,” Journal of Adolescent Health 51/5 (2012), pp. 503–509.

6. H. Ehrlich, “The Ecology of Anti-Gay Violence,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 5/3 (1990), pp. 359–365.

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18. E. Bromet, “Research, clinical, and policy implications of the World Mental Health Survey findings on suicidal behavior,” in M. Nock, G. Borges and Y. Ono (eds), Suicide: Global Perspectives from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 213-222.

19. M. Hatzenbuehler, “The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual yout,” Pediatrics 127/5 (2011), pp. 896–903.

20. S. Safren, R. Heimberg, “Depression, hopelessness, suicidality, and related factors in sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 67/6 (1999), pp. 859–866.

21. C. Burton, M. Marshal, D. Chisolm et al., “Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: A longitudinal analysis,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 42/3 (2013), pp. 394-402.

22. Open Democracy Russia, Russia: A teenage suicide epidemic? (March 2013). Available at