A petition is calling for Russian authorities to immediately drop all charges against a teenager charged with violating the country’s anti-gay propaganda laws.
Maxim Neverov, a 16-year-old high school student in Biysk, made international headlines in August after he was fined 50,000 rubles (or around $750) for posting photos of shirtless men on Facebook. The ruling from a court in Altai Krai made him the first minor convicted under the five-year-old law, which forbids the spread of information on “nontraditional sexual relationships.”
Neverov immediately filed an appeal to overturn the verdict.
As he prepares for a Sept. 17 court hearing, over 23,000 people have called upon Russia to vacate the decision in an online petition.
“If thousands of people hear about his case, we can get Russia’s absurd anti-gay law back in the news,” the advocacy groups All Out and Russian LGBT Network, which are spearheading the petition, claim in a statement. “We can demand that charges are dropped and push for an end to these laws once and for all.”
Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager at Russian LGBT Network, said the law is being used to target the very populations it was allegedly intended to safeguard.
“We believe that the fact that this law is used against a minor shows its absurdity, because when it was adopted it was aimed to ‘protect minors,’” Zakharova claimed in an email to INTO. “This so-called ‘propaganda law’ is harmful in many ways. It is widely used to suppress freedom of expression.”
Yuri Guaiana, a campaigner for All Out, noted that Neverov isn’t just under the age of 18 — he’s also straight. Guaiana claimed this shows the propaganda law is nothing but a license to discriminate for the Russian government.
“The proof is in the language used for the law,” he told INTO. “It’s vague so that everybody can be a target. They’re targeting the LGBTQ community just because it’s the easiest target. Behind it, there’s this much bigger plan — which is to reduce human rights in general for everybody.”
Although Neverov was officially charged with posting the offending materials on social media, the student claimed in an earlier conversation with INTO that the conviction likely stems from his pro-LGBTQ advocacy.
Earlier in the year, the self-described “human rights activist” staged a demonstration he called “Gays or Putin.” Neverov filed a dozen requests for different fake events, knowing none of them would be approved by local government leaders in Biysk. Proposed events included the town’s first-ever Pride parade and — in a seeming paradox — a rally for opponents of same-sex marriage.
Neverov’s intent was to illustrate that no matter what idea he put forward to the planning committee, it would be rejected. Officials proved him right. They dismissed all 12 of his applications.
“It’s not just about LGBTQ issues but freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest,” Neverov told INTO during an August phone interview.
To date, no person prosecuted under the propaganda laws has ever had their conviction successfully overturned. Last year HIV/AIDS activist Evdokia Romanova was fined almost $900 for posting links to LGBTQ-related news articles on Facebook. That penalty might not seem like a lot in the U.S., but in Russia, it amounts to approximately three months’ wages for the average person.
Guaiana believes, however, that the extraordinary attention paid to the case could make a difference.
“Russia needs to know that the world is still watching,” he said. “It’s crucial that Russia keeps feeling the pressure from international community — activists and journalists — and that the conversation keeps going. This law is a violation of human rights, and human rights need to be protected everywhere in the world.”
Although calls for accountability haven’t led to a meaningful response from the Kremlin on the ongoing murders of gay men in Chechnya, Guaiana claimed foreign advocacy has proven effective in the past.
During the 2018 World Cup, officials with the Kremlin-operated organizing committee said LGBTQ fans would be permitted to wave rainbow flags at soccer matches or other associated events. Stating that the propaganda law would not be enforced during the championship games, organizers said no one would “be fined for expressing their feelings.”
“All visitors to Russia in 2018 — regardless of race, gender, religion, ability or sexual orientation — can expect a warm welcome,” the committee claimed in a statement.
Progress was mixed, however. Despite the presence of “safe houses” at the World Cup, the expressed support for LGBTQ fans did not translate into true tolerance. Activist Peter Tatchell was arrested for staging a protest outside the Kremlin. A French soccer fan and his partner were beaten and robbed, left with severe brain injuries.
Advocates say this will be the case — one step forward in Russia, two steps back — until the country finally drops its propaganda law. Since it was enacted in 2013, the number of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes has doubled.
The goal may seem far-fetched after a recent poll showed 63 percent of Russians believe LGBTQ activists are destroying the nation’s “spiritual values.”
Neverov’s court battle, though, has given the community reason to hope.
Ahead of next week’s hearing on the propaganda law conviction, the teenager already won an initial legal victory. After Neverov appealed the denial of his applications to an Altai Krai appeals court, they overturned earlier decisions upholding the town’s right to refuse the events.
The student has not yet been notified of which events will be permitted, but the win is potentially a rare bright spot for LGBTQ rights in Russia.
While petitioners are calling on Russia to repeal the propaganda law, LGBTQ advocates hope the campaign illustrates to Putin’s government that “thousands and thousands of people” are standing behind Neverov in his quest for justice.
After all, he’s just a teenager.
“Maxim needs to know he is not alone,” Guaiana claimed. “He has the whole LGBTQ movement behind him, but here’s him, a kid, fighting Russian authorities. He needs to know that he is supported by lots of people around the world.”
Note: Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.