The Winter Olympics in Sochi has not only brought about a renewed interest in snowboarding by people who live far from the mountains and hockey in people far from the Great Lakes or Canada, but also a concern over the anti-gay atmosphere in Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has instated laws that prevent the communication of any materials that show gay life in a positive manner in any capacity where said materials could be viewed or obtained by children. In contrast to what some in the US and elsewhere have come to believe, no current law in Russia bans “being gay”, gay sex, or having a homosexual relationship, yet the new laws enacted in recent years have fostered an atmosphere where it is next to impossible to have a gay parade or any means whatsoever of bringing gay-oriented topics into public discourse outside of pornography, night clubs, or other venues that would be expressly limited to an adult readership or viewership. Beyond that though—as if the legal mandate to in essence silence any pro-gay discourse wasn’t enough in and of itself—the social climate fostered and validated by these laws has turned harsh in the extreme, breeding hate crimes toward LGBT people and especially toward LGBT youth.
Many have heard of and been alarmed by the efforts of far-right activist groups in Russia that have taunted homosexuals—mostly young gay men—and in some cases, lured them to locations where they were kidnapped, tortured, and injured. Some young gay men have committed suicide when faced with this obviously most-hostile of atmospheres with nowhere to turn for help or solace. However, news reports of such violence and youth suicides alike have been sporadic and filtered through the lens of translation and based on often patched-together facts—a fault not of those trying to help gay rights in Russia nor of journalists, but an issue of attempting to collect information in an often-covert manner and then transmit it to news media in other languages. It has not been an easy task to either obtain fully accurate data on the entire scope of violence, suicides, and other harmful conditions and actions in Russia although specific examples—in some cases captured on video by the very attackers responsible for them then broadcast on the Russian social media site VK—have been tragic, compelling and often beyond scary.
I was the co-author of a scientific review paper that considers the medical literature germane to the plight of LGBT youth in Russia currently and how the legal and social environment has encouraged criminal violence against and hopelessness within such populations. The study was written with two Russians, with the lead author a Russian public health researcher and physician in practice in Moscow and the other author a Russian journalist. Our research was published in December in the Harvard University-published, peer-reviewed, public health journal, Health and Human Rights. The entire paper can be read online here:
Dr. Kucheryavenko, Mr. Guskov, and myself wrote this paper to convey within well-researched scientific parameters standard to the nature of review papers of medical literature like this one the exact gravitas of the very disturbing situation in Russia today. Oleg Kucheryavenko, as a doctor in clinical practice as well as a young but already well-respected public health researcher, desired to publish this paper at some risk to his own career in Russia where authorities and even academic supervisors (he is still a resident physician) might well frown upon the topic and desire instead work that is far less political. His reasons for its publication were that the world needs to be aware of the situation in more exacting terms than are often employed by the general news media and also because he hoped to see it as a catalyst for further reportage and research on this essential topic. President Putin and others can play up the puppet show of “protecting the children” from supposed corruption by gays who wish (of course!) to make Russian kids “turn gay”, but the real, tragic, situation is that people who were already homophobic have seen these anti-gay laws as tacit approval to commit acts of bullying and downright violence against gay youth. It is youth—teenagers—who are suffering most due to this surge of homophobic violence.
Youth suicide in Russia—not that of gay youth alone but of all teens—is a chronic, deep, and poorly-supported problem. There are few organic (parents, teachers) nor formal (helplines, hospitals) resources for suicidal Russian teens to turn to other than their own peers; for gay youth, the situation is expectedly even more dire. Data is even hard to collect on suicidality due to the stigma attached to it and the suicides of gay youth are especially under-reported it is estimated because many families do not wish to draw attention to the fact their child was gay and this factored into his or her decision to commit suicide. We are looking at a health problem akin to HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s in the United States: under-reported, shoved under the rug, misunderstood even by many doctors, and something simply hoped by many to go away in the night and trouble them no further. But though suicide is not caused by a pathogenic virus, it is no less crucial and certainly no less deadly. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, US) considers suicide a condition of the highest collective concern for public health and also one that is most-worthy of study by epidemiologists concerned with non-pathogenic health problems. In contrast, in Russia youth suicide is given attention only by a select few medical specialist groups and a small cadre of caring and concerned physicians, nurses, social workers and researchers. Again, the specific situation of gay youth is provided even less in the way of research or resources and clinical provisions for intervention.
The Winter Olympics may be a catalyst for us as an international community to look deeper into the situation for LGBT populations in Russia, but it must be a continued concern—a constant discourse until we obtain improvement. The real worry should not be that something horrible will happen to visiting Western athletes—the chances are very strong nothing bad will, and they will all be able to compete in their sports and go home—with or without medals. The Russians are not stupid: President Putin promised a safe and secure Olympics for all involved and he’ll make good on that promise insofar as he can. World-class athletes, gay or otherwise, are not those who most need our attention or help. Russian youth who are gay or even suspected of possibly being gay; Russian youth away from the more rational major cities like Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk and instead in smaller communities in rural areas where religious conservatism is more common and stronger—those are the people who need our continued concern and efforts at obtaining justice and freedom from oppressive laws and bullying. Freedom from a constant status of a personal hell that encumbers one to the point of encouraging him or her to take his or her own life. Freedom from feeling that one’s sexual orientation is afoul of the government when it is instead only natural and apolitical.
Plenty of news stories have showcased this same issue, and I am very thankful for that attention, but my point here is to go a bit further: Please read the results of our study, please consider the nuances of a health problem caused not by a virus or other pathogen but by people—humans who have the ability to be rational and caring if they so choose but instead have taken upon themselves to partake in wanton acts of violence that harm the most vulnerable of their fellow man—minority youth—and in some cases bring about their deaths directly or indirectly. That is an issue that will remain after the Olympics have packed up, the gold has been won, and Sochi returns to being a Russian resort city. Please do not forget about the people who most need our care at that time.