In the course of disseminating important news and information, words matter.
The words describing the recent Russian law affecting “gay propaganda” matter because they reveal a type of hysteria not seen since the days of the Cold War.
Allow me to explain.
On June 29 of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law aimed at “protecting children from information promoting the denial of traditional family values.”
Known as Federal Law 135, it amends sections of a similar piece of legislation to protect “children’s development” and was adapted from statutes already on the books in 12 regions of the Russian Federation.
It places fines on individuals, officials, organizations, and companies who “promote non-traditional sexual relations to minors.”
The penalties start at 4,000-5,000 rubles ($150) for individual persons and end up at more than 1 million rubes ($3,000) for legal entities. Foreigners face a similar risk if they transgress the law, but they also risk deportation or up to 15 days detention if they cannot pay the 5,000 ruble fine.
Opponents of the law claim that such broad language will be used to further discriminate against individuals or groups in favor of sexual equality.
While these restrictions are dehumanizing, unjustifiable, and wrong toward homosexuals and groups defending the right to speak freely and live without coercion or force, exaggeration of the law’s effects by prominent media outlets has run rampant and must bear scrutiny.
Respected news outlets, newspapers, and television networks have openly compared the laws which place fines on people or groups promoting homosexuality to the deliberate slaughtering of millions of Jews and other minority groups during the reign of Adolf Hitler. They have propagated the idea that homosexuality in Russia is a crime in itself, and that thousands of innocent LGBT people will be rounded up and swept off the street to be put into camps and prisons across the Russian wilderness.
“Is Russia Nazi Germany?” asked CNN’s Erin Burnett, when exploring the topic on her television program. ”Under Hitler it started with laws. First you have to do this with people . . . and then you have to wear a star, and then we round you up, and then we’re going to euthanize you.”
CNN wasn’t the only TV network to demonstrate Godwin’s law in full effect.
“Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law,” late night comic Jay Leno said on his television show during an interview with President Barack Obama. ”This seems like Germany: let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. It starts with that. You round up people who you don’t like.”
“Why isn’t more of the world outraged at this,” Leno asked Obama, the same president who only recently declared his support for same-sex marriage, after intense years of “soul-searching” according to the White House blog. In the course of his interview with Leno, he demanded Russia “respect gay rights.”
After Obama’s recent spats with Russia, including its granting of asylum to NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden and opposition to a Western-led war in Syria, it suits him well to criticize Moscow — a point taken up by many in the US media.
D.C.’s darling paper, the Washington Post, claimed “rainbows and kisses could be construed as cause for arrest,” while trendy outlets like BuzzFeed called the Russian law a huge “crackdown on LGBT rights.”
These types of comparisons should be disconcerting to those who wish to report true facts and provide clear analysis — but the echo chamber continues.
MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts, an openly gay anchor who will head to Russia to co-host the Miss Universe pageant, wrote a piece claiming the gay propaganda laws “criminalize and stigmatize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in Russia.” Roberts’s pledge to host Miss Universe and “give LGBT Russians hope,” however, drew criticism from one Huffington Post Gay Voices blogger as “convenient activism with a big, fat paycheck.”
In the context of the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be hosted in Sochi, Russia, a recent New York Times op-ed by Hollywood actor and gay rights activist Harvey Fierstein states that the law allows police to “arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or pro-gay.”
Openly-gay Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, whose partner is a second-generation Russian emigre, brought reality to these fears.
“I don’t think that there is a crazy squad of homophobic KGB officers running around Russia,” Weir told MSNBC, an outlet featuring heavy commentary on the propaganda law and its effect on the Winter Olympics. “Being gay in Russia has always been a little bit difficult. Putin signed a law, and the law for actual Russians doesn’t change the way they’ve always had to live.”
The consensus to draw from this, therefore, is not that discrimination against LGBT people is not happening in Russia, but rather that the law as written does not convey the cartoon reality drawn by US media outlets.
Are there atrocious crimes being committed against homosexuals by both the state and private citizens? Yes. Is the lack of true equality before the law for so many a true reason for concern? Yes. These facts are undeniable.
But extreme characterizations of this law by its opponents in the US media, equating it with the mass extermination of over 11 million people during a time of world war, is harmful for the LGBT movement. The laws have already been in place in most of the country for more than a decade, and ordinary Russians don’t seem keen to adopt Vermont-style same-sex marriage laws.
The rights of LGBT individuals should be as universal and sacrosanct as they are for everyone. This will only be achieved if journalists and activists alike deal in fact and avoid exaggerations.