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New Laws Galvanize Russian Gays

Protests mount as activists take on measures barring ‘homosexual propaganda’ among minors.

by Irina Titova 13 April 2012

ST. PETERSBURG | Russian journalist Masha Gessen says she loves St. Petersburg. And she wants you to stay away from it.


“I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I have many friends who live there. And I am asking you, please, do not visit it,” the Moscow-based reporter and author of The Man Without a Face, a new book on Vladimir Putin, wrote in a blog post for the International Herald Tribune in mid-March.

A protester against St. Petersburg's anti-gay propaganda law is led away by police on 4 April. Photo from


Gessen is one of the most prominent voices calling for an international boycott of St. Petersburg since Russia’s second-biggest city – and its most popular among tourists – adopted a law last month banning “homosexual propaganda” among minors. She has encouraged would-be visitors to change their plans, Mercedes-Benz and PepsiCo to pull their sponsorships of the city’s annual International Economic Forum in June, and Madonna to cancel a scheduled 9 August concert.


“Neither the Russian authorities nor the Russian public see that they stand to lose anything by passing blatantly discriminatory legislation,” Gessen wrote. “Please help us show them that they do have something to lose.”


The boycott effort is the most widespread manifestation of a new wave of activism by Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered groups and their supporters abroad, fueled by the spread of similar laws in other regions and calls for national legislation.


An Italian group, Arcigay, and online campaign organization produced videos backing a boycott, and AllOut has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures on electronic petitions opposing the law. Russian activists are planning court challenges. Most controversially, in response to claims by the laws' proponents that they are acting to protect youth, many campaigners are focusing protests on institutions for children.


Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, but homophobia remains widespread. In a 2010 survey by the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, 74 percent of respondents said they considered gays and lesbians “amoral” or “mentally defective.” But activists say the new laws, by seeming to target the right to even discuss issues such as same-sex marriage publicly, have particularly energized the community.


Sexual minorities increasingly feel as if they must “defend themselves,” said Yuri Vdovin, deputy head of Citizens Watch, a St. Petersburg human rights group. “If they had been left alone, they would not have become that active. With this law, the authorities basically advertised for their opponents.”


St. Petersburg’s law makes it a civil offense to engage in “the promotion of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, [or] transgenderism among minors,” defined as public distribution of “information that could harm the health or the process of moral and spiritual development of minors,” including information that treats traditional and nontraditional marriages as socially equal. Fines for violations range up to $170 for individuals, $1,700 for officials, and $34,000 for organizations.


To gay activists, the law’s ambiguous wording means it could apply to virtually any positive public expression of homosexuality, from Gay Pride parades to arts exhibitions and media appearances. (Pride events, though ostensibly legal, are already routinely banned in St. Petersburg and across Russia under various pretexts.)


Like measures have been adopted in a handful of other cities, one of which, Novosibirsk, submitted its bill to the Duma in late March for national consideration. In a note of explanation, the Novosibirsk Legislative Assembly said, “Propaganda of homosexuality in modern Russia has become widespread and it is particularly dangerous for children and teenagers.”


Activists have focused on that aspect of the laws in mounting protests, demonstrating at youth centers and libraries with the aim of getting arrested to lay the groundwork for challenges in Russia's Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights. 


“This is an obscurantist law that is aimed against education of children and youth,” said Maria Yefremenkova, a St. Petersburg activist. “We want our schools, like schools in Western countries, to offer an opportunity for neutral, scientifically based education about homosexuality.”


Yefremenkova was among a handful of picketers at a St. Petersburg children’s library on 4 April. Police arrived at the scene but did not detain any activists. However, two people were arrested the following day when a group of Moscow activists, including Nikolai Alekseyev, leader of the rights group GayRussia, demonstrated in front of St. Petersburg's Palace of Youth Creativity with signs reading “It’s normal to be gay.” (The pair was released 6 April after a judge postponed a hearing on the case, saying she had not received the proper documents from the police.)


Members of GayRussia were also arrested at a 23 March protest outside a regional children’s library in Kostroma, another city that has passed laws on gay propaganda. They were tried the same day in a local court and found not guilty.


In the past Russian gay activists tended toward more traditional street actions, such as unauthorized marches or Pride parades. Yuri Gavrikov, leader of Ravnopraviye (Equality), a St. Petersburg gay rights organization, said the boycott and the youth-focused protests, though not unheard of in Russia, are rare and would not be part of activists’ arsenal if not for the new laws. The first such demonstrations took place in the Ryazan region in 2008 after it passed a gay-propaganda statute.


Gavrikov noted that gay-rights activists in the United Kingdom demonstrated at children’s facilities from 1988 to 2003, when British law banned teaching about homosexuality.


“I wouldn't say we copy the actions of gay activists in the West, but it seems that society has been developing according to some general models. Similar things have already happened in other countries,” he said. “In Russia we’re sort of lagging behind those processes.”


Support for targeting children’s institutions is not universal among campaigners. Igor Kochetkov, director of Coming Out, another St. Petersburg LGBT group, called the tactic “irrational.”


“Such actions can only make the public think that we indeed want to promote homosexual relations among minors, which is not true,” Kochetkov said. But he said sexual minorities were prepared to protest in other venues and challenge the St. Petersburg law in court.


“We'll have to resist, though I personally would not want to have any confrontations,” Kochetkov said.


Some church groups that have backed the push for gay-propaganda laws have warned gay activists about protesting or campaigning in places frequented by minors.


“Our people are peaceful, but they will defend their children adequately, so it's not worth playing with matches here,” Yuri Ageshev, coordinator of the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods, told Russian news agency Interfax.


Sergei Rybko, a prominent Orthodox missionary and priest in Moscow, said he has blessed believers for promoting the new laws, according to Interfax. “I want to ask one question of those who advocate propaganda of homosexuality among minors,” Rybko said. “Do they want their children to become gays?”


Vitaly Milonov, the St. Petersburg assembly member who wrote that city’s gay-propaganda bill, said its language reflects a March 2010 decision by the Russian Constitutional Court, which, in upholding the Ryazan law, said such measures reflect the constitution’s special protection of motherhood, children, and the family.


Such attitudes are echoed at the highest levels of government. Putin – who will start his third term as president next month – has linked his position on gay rights to Russia’s birth rate and declining population.


Same-sex marriages “do not produce offspring, as you know,” Putin said in a December 2010 interview with CNN’s Larry King. “We are fairly tolerant toward sexual minorities. However, we think the state should promote reproduction and support mothers and children.”


In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, officials are not expecting the law or the boycott campaign to stem tourism. Sergei Korneyev, deputy head of the Russian Tourism Union, said the new law did not entail “any discrimination against any tourists” unless they violate the ban.


“It is normal to observe the laws of a country to which a person travels. For instance, in Muslim countries laws and traditions are quite strict, but tourists obey them,” Korneyev told The St. Petersburg Times in late March.


That could make things interesting for the city’s most anticipated summertime visitor. Madonna has turned down calls to join the boycott and cancel her August show but said she would use the occasion to speak out for gay rights.


“I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community, to support the gay community, and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed,” the pop superstar said on her Facebook page 28 March. “I don't run away from adversity.”


Madonna’s statement displeased some gay activists. News agency Rosbalt reported that Slavic Gay Pride, a coalition of Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian Pride organizers, planned to protest at her shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg “to draw attention to the hypocrisy of Western stars.”


But she also risks incurring the wrath of St. Petersburg officials if she follows through on her promise to speak out. Milonov, the St. Petersburg legislator, warned that Madonna would face “administrative punishment” if she or the concert’s organizers violate the law.

Irina Titova is a freelance journalist in St. Petersburg.
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