Intervention – 'Explosive Multiscalar Negotiations of Sexual Citizenship: The 2014 Russian Winter Olympics Countdown'

Explosive Multiscalar Negotiations of Sexual Citizenship: The 2014 Russian Winter Olympics Countdown

Martin Zebracki, University of Leeds

I feel the urge to reflect on the dramatic actions against the citizenship rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs—an inclusive formulation that also includes sexually questioning and intersex populations) in the Russian Federation in the build-up to the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi in February 2014. The ideas put forth here are meant to contribute to debates that seek to critically engage with queer liberalism and homonationalism (see Puar 2007; Eng 2010). This intervention is thus not positing that Russia’s LGBT struggles are backward and ‘unenlightened’ queer but, rather, mapping out and locating how the decision to monitor and criminalize queer identities in Russia provides a way to think about how we understand the ethics of sexual citizenship and belonging across time and space. Most obviously I ask: how is the Russian anti-LGBT crackdown both upholding and providing a context for us to challenge queer liberalism and homonationalism?

Although the Russian Federation decriminalized same-sex sexual relationships in 1993, the state Duma prohibits, as of June 2013, ‘the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ via any form of communication, including education, film and art, and news service via paper, TV, radio and the internet. The alleged reason for this federal ban, which complements the so-called federal foreign agent law and some regional anti-LGBT laws that were already in place, is to ‘protect minors’ (The Council for Global Equality 2013). The federal foreign agent law, signed in July 2012, has already badly damaged LGBT support, as it targets non-profit organizations in Russia, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and some major regional LGBT groups that receive foreign funding, raiding offices and seizing documents in ‘audits’ (Barry 2012; The Council for Global Equality 2013). On top of the federal law banning LGBT ‘propaganda’, which classifies it as ‘pornography’, any Russian citizen, and, indeed, any visitor (including future Olympic visitors), who discloses an ‘atypical’, non-heterosexual orientation in Russia risks being arrested, locked up for two weeks without trial, and hit with a substantial fine. This risk also holds for those who are merely ‘suspected’ or ‘accused’ of being LGBT, or even pro-LGBT. Anti-LGBT laws are being applied more often and ever more rigidly to foreigners (Fierstein 2013; The Council for Global Equality 2013).

Hence, being, becoming, and bespeaking LGBT is now strictly illegal in Russia, as also reflected by the reported but unpunished Russian cases of extreme LGBT hate crimes in recent months. Paradoxically, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2013, Russia expressed its willingness to prevent such hate crimes and sexual discrimination (Russian LGBT Network 2013), but such discourse remains aloof from everyday practice in Russia. Sexual dissidents who were already strongly marginalized (see Healy’s [2001] and Baer’s [2002] work on the discursive construction of post-Soviet homosexual desire in Russia), are now more radically manipulated and condemned. Russia’s problematic bill banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda’ is certainly not a stand-alone, formal-institutional action. There is a more worrisome matter at the socio- and bio-political level that is not only geographically confined to the Russian Federation, and that is not only affecting LGBTs (see also Puar [2007], who, using Foucauldian work on biopolitics and feminist and queer theories, examines the subjugation of LGBTs in terms of securitization, terrorism/counterterrorism and nationalism). Since July 2013, under the anything but innocent veil of ‘protecting minors’, and also in fear of paedophilia, couples or single parents of any sexual orientation in countries where same-sex marriage is legally institutionalized are not allowed to adopt Russian-born children (Fierstein 2013). And there are even more serious restrictions in the offing for LGBTs in Russia; for example, a draft law proposes to remove children from LGBT parents. According to The Guardian (2013a), some gay and lesbian families have indicated that they will leave Russia in order to make their sexed bodies and everyday lives legal again (see also Mai and King’s [2009] fruitful discussion of spatial mobilities and migration in relation to dissident sexualities). To my mind, the discourse of ‘the innocent child’ is here legislatively abused to endorse not-so-innocent anti-LGBT acts. Yet, according to Kiryukhina (2013), many Russians contend that the law concerned is not meant to be anti-LGBT but anti-propaganda, and that it has genuinely been called into being ‘to protect children’.

In all senses, the Russian anti-LGBT acts are at serious variance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These acts also have massive, negative implications for sexual health care for LGBTs, sexual education, and the public advocacy of LGBT rights by social and legislative bodies (The Council for Global Equality 2013). Diverse parties advocating the rights of LGBTs both in and outside Russia heap much criticism on the Russian anti-LGBT oppression, which leaves a relatively divided socio-political landscape between sexual progressivism or reformism on the one side and sexual conservatism on the other. One may particularly wonder to what extent the Russian anti-LGBT actions are inspired by a mixture of radical political-conservative ideologies, Russian Orthodox regimen and moralities, and state concerns related to the country’s diminishing birth rate. In that respect it can be argued that it was not a coincidence that Vladimir Putin concurrently signed the LGBT propaganda ban and a law that makes insulting a person’s religious feelings a criminal act. Without a doubt, the latter law was spurred in the globally controversial aftermath of the pro-LGBT and anti-Putin performance by the feminist protest group Pussy Riot in a Moscow cathedral in February 2012 (McCormick 2013).

Russian authorities have steadfastly guaranteed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that LGBT athletes and visitors will not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality during the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The same authorities, however, including the sports minister, play an ambivalent game by claiming that they will abide by the anti-LGBT laws (The Associated Press 2013; The Council for Global Equality 2013). The global sports event in Sochi has become a particularly important background against which to denounce the aforementioned dramatic actions against LGBTs in Russia and to renegotiate their rights and the understanding of LGBT phobia at all levels of society – not only in the context of Russia, but also in relation to sexually conservative states around the world, where the rights of LGBTs are more limited or non-existent. For example, in Saudi Arabia and Iran, same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death. I reserve a discussion on the particularly problematic nature of LGBT rights in some Muslim states and Islamic communities for a later occasion (for an interesting discussion on the tensions between religion/belief and sexual orientation, and on the dynamics of homophobic rhetoric in transnational religious contexts, see Valentine and Waite [2012] and Valentine et al. [2012], respectively).

The anti-LGBT actions in Russia are not ‘just’ a problematic Russian case of sexual citizenship, which is multiscalar. Sexual citizenship imports duty and rights that coexist with responsibilization where they are critically negotiated along values, norms and jurisprudence in various reified or incorporeal and virtual political, economic and socio-cultural contexts over time and at interplaying spatial scales of the global, region, local, community, home and body (see also Bell and Binnie’s [2006] and Hubbard’s [2011] scrupulous conceptualizations of geographies of sexual citizenship, and Grundy’s and Smith’s [2006] analysis of multiscalar citizenship in relation to lesbian and gay social movement organizing). The Russian anti-LGBT actions have entered a global arena and act as a window on debates about universal LGBT rights and sexual citizenship more broadly, anywhere and at any time. Notably, the increasing number of cases of LGBT violence in Russia parallels a growing international vexation about Russia’s disturbing direction in the sphere of social equality and diversity. A plethora of international political and social communities have been progressively negotiating their relationships with Russia and struggling for proper, humane LGBT rights against Putin and those who bear the anti-LGBT sway in Russia. Thus far, this has been to no avail. Beyond diplomacy, global pro-LGBT protest parades, campaigns and movements have swung into action against Russia’s reprehensible treatment of LGBTs. A number of city partnerships with Russian municipalities have been abolished, and some international financial agencies have read Russia the riot act and showed the intention of suspending or stopping all capital expenditures in Russia. In addition, gay bars around the world have started to boycott Stoli vodka, although the company concerned claims to be pro-LGBT. The Duma, as a result, has become anxious about the domestic economic impact of its own anti-LGBT laws, and set about sounding out major businesses and multinationals in Russia on LGBT-diversity policies in the workplace (Kiryukhina 2013; The Council for Global Equality 2013).

The Winter Olympics have thus become heavily politicized, and some Olympic organizations and athletes believe that this imperils the ‘non-political’ nature of this major global event (The Guardian 2013b). For instance, if LGBT advocates were to encourage all LGBTs, including athletes and supporters, to stay at home because of Russian anti-LGBT legislation, this could lead to the wasting of all those expensive years of passionate preparation on the part of the athletes as well as enfeeble the Olympic spirit, which promotes social inclusion irrespective of sex, ethnicity and sexual orientation. A stronger message to the Duma could rather be addressed by showing up, as conveyed by the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron: “I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics” (quoted in Morrison and Sheepshanks 2013). Critically, given all the media attention for LGBTs in the context of the Russian Winter Olympics, their otherness is ‘extra-othered’ and LGBTs might become, to use Bell and Binnie’s (2004:1810) words, “exotic objects” for consumption during the games, while a more critical engagement with LGBT agendas behind LGBTs’ presence should be required.

Martin Zebracki - 02.10.13_fig1A protest campaign in Berlin after the introduction of the ban on ‘the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ in June 2013. Photograph by Adam Lederer.
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Genuine LGBT rights are undoubtedly still not evident across space. In Russia and many other sexually conservative states, LGBT spaces of love and intimacy are socio-physically and psychologically marginalized and politically manipulated. We ideally need a sexually enlightened critical mass that will produce a dissenting opinion that radically counteracts any sexually discriminating and offensive actions at all governing levels and in the subtle practices of everyday life. The basis of such a sexually enlightened critical mass is that all humans acknowledge and respect their fluid and diverse sexualities, and value and tolerate sexual heterogeneities in society at large and in diverse cultural-historical places and trajectories. Feeding back to critical geographers, although “sexuality is finally ‘on the map’ in geography”, as Oswin (2013:105) puts it, I believe that we should make it our duty and priority to further promote sexual citizenship in all the spaces of academia – from the classroom and conference venues, to the street, weblogs and beyond. I hope the outrageous anti-LGBT actions in Russia – which show us that LGBTs are massively politically, legally, socially and emotionally ensnared – will drive the discussion and further the understanding of sexual citizenship, or rather of the socially negotiated rights of sexually challenged citizens. Also, and as called for by Brown (2012), a more differential insight is needed into the complex intersectionalities between other identities of gender, race, class, age, ability/disability and religion within the purview of sexual citizenship. There is a long way to go and much to explore.

Martin Zebracki is a lecturer / assistant professor in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. His work in cultural geography explores public art, space and place, representation, identity, power, gender, sexuality and embodiment. His work has appeared in, among other places, Environment and Planning A, Geoforum, GeoJournal, Social and Cultural Geography and Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie. Martin is the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers’ Space, Sexualities and Queer Research Group (SSQRG).


I would like to thank Katherine McKittrick and Andrew Kent for their useful comments on an earlier version of this Intervention.


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