Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has long been troubled by Russia’s roads. For decades, few laws regulated the wild experience of driving in Russia, which resulted in 200,000 traffic accidents in 2011 that killed more than 28,000 people. They’re so dangerous that many people have installed dash cameras, resulting in some truly wild viral videos depicting the insanity.
“We need to get our roads into better shape,” Medvedev said in 2009. They “are a consequence of how we monitor our roads, a consequence of the undisciplined, criminally careless behavior of our drivers. Often, these are not mishaps, but blatant acts of crime.”
So Medvedev has come up with a new solution to clean up Russia’s roads: Ban transsexuals and transgender people from driving. He recently signed an order saying that people could be stricken from getting a license based exclusively on their sexual orientation – which is listed as a “mental disorder.” According to Radio Free Europe, anyone who subscribes to “transsexualism,” or has the “desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex” or wears “clothes of the opposite sex in order to experience temporarily membership of the opposite sex” can be restricted from getting a license.
Reality check: In India, there’s a transgender mayor. A bearded drag queen just won Europe’s singing competition, Eurovision. But in Russia, which made “promoting non-traditional lifestyles” illegal in 2013, you can’t even drive if you’re gender fluid.
Russian lawyers for human rights couldn’t believe it. “People who fall in those classifications are legally capable,” said attorney Maria Bast, herself a transgender woman, calling the order “immoral” and “discriminatory” in an interview with Radio Free Europe. Transexualism “doesn’t impact their driving in any way.”
But anyone who is surprised by the measure is ignoring both the power of discriminatory politics, the sway of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ingrained Russian distaste for the sexual Other. Even if it doesn’t make any logical sense.
“Is this law necessary?” asked Michael Bohm in the Moscow Times. “Gays aren’t usually active in ‘propagandizing’ nontraditional sexual lifestyles to minors for the simple reason that it is a useless endeavor. Minors do not become lesbian, bisexual or transgender because of a newspaper article defending LGBT rights that they may stumble upon — including this one — or a gay parade that they may accidentally witness once a year while walking down the street. They are born that way.”
But that analysis underestimates the political traction and popularity of homophobia. As Bohm himself later pointed out, nearly nine in 10 Russians supported banning gays from passing out literature on being gay. Studies show only 16 percent of Russians say homosexuality should be accepted. “The widespread homophobia provided fertile ground for the new anti-gay law,” Bohm said. And that same homophobia likely provided the kindling to ignite recent law discriminating against “sex disorders” as well.
What are the roots of that homophobia? A lot of it, according to the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, has to do with Russia’s recent economic history and it’s cultural roots in the Soviet Union, under which homosexuality was a crime that could land you in prison or a hard labor camp. “Gays were considered ‘outsiders,’ and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists,” she wrote.
Studies also suggest that times of economic turmoil often give rise to renewed racial and gender biases. It has been no different for Russia. Russia’s economic troubles – which have gone from bad to worse to dismal this year – are “factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes,” Khazan wrote in the Atlantic.
Then there’s the Russian Orthodox Church. Though many Russians, like many Chinese, aren’t strict adherents of religion, 80 to 90 percent of them call themselves Orthodox Christians. And that church has a big problem with gays. According to a 2012 Newsweek piece, Vladimir Putin is also now pretty cozy with a lot of Russian Orthodox players. “Since Putin’s reelection, a parade of priests have been loudly denouncing forces aligned against the president,” the story said.
Ivan Ostrakovsky, the leader of a group of Russian Orthodox men, explained that the “enemies of Holy Russia are everywhere.” And so, when it came time to support Russia’s ban on gay propaganda, a group of demonstrators, according to the National Catholic Reporter held Orthodox icons and chanted prayers. One held a sign: “Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!”
So when it came time to “protect” Russia’s roads from the “perverts” once more, Medvedev didn’t hesitate.