Stigmatizing the Otherness: Anti-LGBTQIA+ Rhetoric of Russian Propaganda

In the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russian propaganda employs homophobia and the demonization of LGBTQIA+ individuals to justify anti-Western policies and military aggression. Through slurs, dehumanization, and stigmatization, Russia aims to marginalize opposition movements and consolidate an “us vs them” narrative.

Institutionalized intolerance, backed by laws banning LGBTQIA+ “propaganda” and criminalizing nontraditional sexual relations, underscores the extent of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments in Russian society.

This rhetoric not only discredits political leaders, international organizations, and Ukraine but also associates LGBTQIA+ rights with weakness and degradation. While Ukraine emphasizes equal rights and solidarity, Russian disinformation campaigns seek to undermine these efforts and delegitimize human rights initiatives.

As the Russian-Ukrainian war remains an existential war for identity and civilizational choice, Moscow’s official rhetoric normally uses the “preservation of traditional values” as one of the formal justifications for both anti-Western policy and Russian military aggression against Ukraine as “curated by the West”. Thus, in Putin’s announcement of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the narrative about “protecting traditional values” was also mentioned:

They [the collective West – ed.] sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen.

Meanwhile, Russia’s anti-Western sentiments concern not only the political course but also a set of values, which implies a binary opposition of “weak and pervert” Western values “leading to degradation” vs “healthy and normal Russian values rooted in tradition”. This is manifested in Russian initiatives, such as the “straight flag” proposed by the “United Russia” pro-government political party, in contrast to the pride flag and described as the symbolic expression of Russia’s “anti-LGBTQIA+” struggle. 

Homophobia as a Part of Political Rhetoric

In Russia, intolerance, especially homophobia, is institutionalized. Homophobia in Russian society and the authorities is nothing new. Thus, in 2013, Russia adopted a law banning the “propaganda of homosexuality among children”, which was also known as “anti-gay law”, aimed to “protect” children and traditional family values.

In 2022, the amendment to this law criminalized the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among all age groups. The new law implies fines for “propagandizing nontraditional sexual relations” for Russian citizens and organizations and arrest and expulsion from Russia for foreigners. This means not only human rights abuse but also in fact a ban for every mention of LGBTQIA+ topics, which can be considered as a violation of law.

This led to more or less absurd consequences, such as fining cinemas for showing movies showing LGBTQIA+ people as “gay propaganda”, fining google for the refusal to delete videos including “gay propaganda” and even censoring the songs, as it happened with Beyonce’s “If I were a boy”, which turned into “If I had a boy” to avoid a “propaganda of transsexuality”.

Also, it was followed by the State Duma proposals to check the social networks of migrants and applicants for Russian citizenship for extremism, discrediting the Russian Armed Forces and “propaganda of non-traditional values.”

Except for using homophobia as a weapon in Russia’s battle for “traditional values”, Russian propaganda does everything possible to incite it in Russian society, turning it into an instrument for consolidation, and strengthening the “us vs them” opposition.

As of 2022, one in five LGBTQIA+ people in Russia experienced physical violence because of their sexual orientation or transgender status, and one in three experienced threats. Therefore, the use of homophobic rhetoric and slurs to discredit and demonize any opposition movements, political leaders, or international organizations is a classic tactic of Russian propaganda. 

The “collective West” was regularly blamed for “roughly imposing LGBTQIA+ agenda”, propagating “false values” and “perversion”, while president Biden was portrayed as gay (which implied he was a weak and indecisive leader), and NATO – as an aggressive block governed by LGBTQIA+ (which is rather contradictory, if Russian propagandistic optics is taken seriously).

Expectedly, the same disinformation tactics have been used to discredit Ukraine and its government since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. Homophobic rhetoric has been used in propagandistic attacks against the Ukrainian president, together with accusations of drug addiction, which was aimed to create a contrast to the Russian president, whose public image follows the canons of toxic masculinity and the reputation of the “defender of the conservative values and the family institute”.

Belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community is systematically associated with weakness, as opposed to toxic masculinity and machismo. This is why the caricature portraying the Russian president with a clown nose and pride flag colors, provoked the official statement by the Russian embassy in Switzerland followed by the claims about the denigration of the “honor and dignity” of the Russian leader and threats of a lawsuit: 

As for the personality of the President of the Russian Federation, he, as you know, is a deeply religious Orthodox person advocating the preservation of traditional Christian values ​​in Russian society and is clearly not a fan of the LGBTQIA+ community, and therefore the rainbow coloring of his face is ridiculous”. 

The Role of Anti-LGBTQIA+ Sentiments in “Defending the Traditional Values” Narrative

As Russian national myth includes being a country waging a crusade for traditional values and sometimes even against satanism, this also is reflected in the rhetoric of Russian invaders. Thus, Adam Delimkhanov, a close ally of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, declared the intention to fight Satanism and LGBTQIA+ in Belgorod, together with classic claims about the “liberation of Ukrainian people”:

Wherever they are, we will go over and destroy them [Free Russia Legion and The Russian Volunteer Corps fighting for Ukraine] and liberate the Ukrainian people from this LGBTQIA+, satanic, fascist regime led by this LGBTQIA+ person Zelensky.”

As LGBTQIA+ persons are now defending Ukraine in the ranks of the country’s Armed Forces, equal rights for the LGBTQIA++ community are now vitally important as a declaration of support and solidarity on the state level to guarantee the basic rights and liberties for all Ukrainians.

As an answer to this problem, a draft law for the legalization of civil partnerships for heterosexual and same-sex couples appeared and was submitted to the Ukrainian parliament.

Not surprisingly, the initiative was used by Russian propaganda to promote disinformation about “the end of the family institute in Ukraine on demand of Western curators”. This was also strengthened by scary narratives about children changing their sex and families with parent 1 and parent 2 instead of mother and father.

As all Ukraine’s steps towards gender equality and anti-discriminatory measures are being systematically depreciated and ridiculed, the personal attacks against Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun, the author of the initiative were also included, blaming her for being a sorosenok (Russian derogative for a “George Soros’ puppet working for Western grants and promoting “LGBTQIA+ agenda”. The word is created by analogy with porosenok – Russian word for “piglet”).  

Ridiculisation and marginalization, mockery and skepticism were also used by Russian propaganda to discredit other human rights initiatives in Ukraine, for example, the Istanbul convention, which was one of the conditions of Ukraine’s NATO ascension, which was followed by the waves of disinformation in the network of Russia-backed Telegram channels as well as on the classic Russian media.

Ukraine’s fight against discrimination is regularly devalued as a concept – and this is also clearly seen in the example of disinformation about The Pride, which is annually held in Ukraine, and portrayed by Russian propaganda as a “gay parade” and “homosexual walk” and, certainly, as a “propaganda of homosexuality and the change of gender”. 

Slurs and Humiliation as the Instruments of Marking the “Other”

This is also reflected in the level of language. While Russia weaponizes everything in its information war against Ukraine and the entire democratic world, liberal values are not an exception. In Russian propagandistic discourse, being “soy” [a disrespectful word used to describe libertarians, liberals, and pacifists – ed.] is also equalized with a crime against morality as well as the crime against Russian identity. 

Being “soy” and fighting for feminism, LGBTQIA+ rights are not only a “plebeian nonsense” but also a sign of weakness, which is also used to stigmatize the Western governments as well as any anti-Russian political initiative as “powerless” and “incompetent” to fight the “Russian bear”. In such a paradigm, contemporary Russian identity does not need democracy, diversity, and pluralism.

It needs consolidation and a national myth built on strength and greatness, which also implies oppression of the “other” as “weaker” or simply different. In an attempt to justify the genocidal war against Ukraine, Russian propaganda mouthpieces also promote the messages that “ordinary Ukrainians do not want to die for the LGBTQIA+ ideals of the Kyiv junta” and need to be “liberated” from the “LGBTQIA+ agenda imposed by West”, which is also a continuation of the “Ukraine and Russia are one nation” narrative.

The neological derogative liberast actively used by the Russian propaganda was formed by the same derivational pattern as “pederast”, and meant not only to strengthen the stigmatization of LGBTQIA+ identity but also to mark liberal values as “other” and, therefore, “abnormal”.

In an alternative reality, where homosexuality is portrayed as a “disease of the West” and the Ukrainian struggle for freedom is described as “Ukrainians’ fight for Zelensky, the LGBTQIA+ clown and a dwarf with a hoarse voice, homophobia stops being a problem of radical groups and turns into mainstream approved by the government. 

While Russian disinformation in Ukraine exploits the messages about “Western partners openly calling for non-traditional sexual relations among Ukrainian teenagers” to undermine the Ukrainians’ trust towards the allies, useful initiatives, such as sex education are also demonized as “LGBTQIA+ propaganda” and “fornication” of Ukrainian children.

From a Russian perspective, the Russian war against Ukraine and the West is now being written as a war of values, meant to protect Russian people from “LGBTQIA+ vermin” as well as from the world where “being normal is forbidden”.

Dehumanization of Ukrainian defenders as Nazies “looking forward to going to Bandera’s gay paradise” and dying for “LGBTQIA+ insanity” not only portrays Russia as the only civilization that stands for traditional values and family institute but also remains a part of a domestic narrative.

This narrative seeks to divert attention away from the unjustified annihilation of Ukrainians and the commission of war crimes, which will lead to collective responsibility.