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Being Gay In St. Petersburg Gets Even Harder

  • Claire Bigg

A gay activist is detained by police during a gay-pride parade in St. Petersburg in June 2011.

A gay activist is detained by police during a gay-pride parade in St. Petersburg in June 2011.

Aleksandra and Marina had never contemplated leaving Russia.

Now the two women, a longtime lesbian couple, are giving it serious thought following the adoption of a new law targeting homosexuals in their hometown of St. Petersburg,

The law, which came into effect in mid-March, criminalizes "public action directed at propagandizing sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors."

It follows similar legislation in the cities of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk, and Kostroma. But its adoption in St. Petersburg, one of Russia's most liberal cities, has sparked international outrage and sown fear among the homosexual community.

Three months after the law's passage, homosexuals in St. Petersburg are finding that the fragile human rights gains they earned through years of activism have suddenly evaporated.

"'Homosexual propaganda' is an extremely vague term. Now when I tell Marina 'I love you,' it could be considered homosexual propaganda," says Aleksandra, a 40-year-old PR manager who chose not to give her surname to protect her privacy.

"We are shocked by how openly and crudely our government is telling us that we have no rights. So yes, sometimes we consider packing our bags and leaving."

Chilling Effect

The maximum punishment under the new law is a fine of about $17,000. But many fear the law will fuel already deeply entrenched homophobia and pave the way for yet harsher measures against Russia's gays and lesbians.

Antigay protesters destroy a bus carrying gay activists during the "Rainbow flashmob" organized in St. Petersburg on May 17.

Antigay protesters destroy a bus carrying gay activists during the "Rainbow flashmob" organized in St. Petersburg on May 17.

It has already had a chilling effect on St. Petersburg's relatively vibrant gay scene. Activists say several cultural venues have already canceled events organized by the community for fear of being fined.

Perhaps more alarmingly for homosexual parents like Aleksandra and Marina, the law specifically targets people deemed to give children a "distorted impression" of "marital relations." Aleksandra and her partner, who are raising Marina's 2-year-old son together, fear for their family.

"Legislation could become even tougher. It's perfectly possible that in a year's time social services will knock at our door, ask us why we are living and raising a child together, declare that Marina is a bad mother and take the child away from us," Aleksandra says.

"Nothing is impossible in this country. If such a law is possible, then anything is possible. And this scares me."

Tapping Into Widespread Prejudice

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, hostility against gays and lesbians remains widespread in Russia.

A 2010 poll by the independent Levada Center found that 38 percent of Russians viewed homosexuality as a "bad habit," while 36 percent thought it was "a sickness or result of a psychological trauma."

At the public level, close allies of President Vladimir Putin and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have made no secret of their aversion toward homosexuals.

State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, the law's main author, has branded them "perverts" and accused activists of colluding with Western governments to convert Russian children into homosexuals.

A man attacks an activist during a gay-pride parade in St. Petersburg last year, typical of the violence marchers face.

A man attacks an activist during a gay-pride parade in St. Petersburg last year, typical of the violence marchers face.

Repeated attempts to hold gay-pride marches, which have been described by former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov as "satanic," have been brutally repressed. Attacks on homosexuals are rife and rarely punished.

Frederike Vehr, of Amnesty International, warns that Russian homosexuals should brace for a spike in violence. "Of course, such a law increases the possibly that people will consider that attacks on homosexuals are justified," he says. "The fear is there."

Echoing these concerns, a number of human rights groups and Western governments have warned homosexual tourists against visiting St. Petersburg.

Growing Campaign

Several arrests have already been made in the city under the new law. Last month, Nikolai Alekseyev, Russia's leading gay-rights campaigner, was fined the equivalent of $170 for holding a sign reading "Homosexuality is not a perversion, field hockey and ice ballet are."

Critics say the law is part of a government campaign aimed at boosting the Kremlin's flagging popularity by tapping into antigay sentiment.

They suspect officials, too, are behind, a new website launched last month to combat "the growing terror of sexual minorities." The site has published a list of media resources that it claims violated the law on promoting homosexuality, and its authors say they are ready to use force to defend the "rights" of heterosexuals.

A RFE/RL request for an interview with the website's editor went unanswered.

A handful of prominent figures have raised their voice against the mounting antigay rhetoric, but most Russians remain largely indifferent.

Tip Of The Iceberg

Gay activists, however, warn that heterosexuals should also be worried.

Many believe the new law fits into wider efforts to crack down on public protest and civic activity as Putin faces an unprecedented opposition movement against his 12-year rule.

"This law will be applied against people who take to the streets, against journalists who write things that displease authorities, against those who simply defend their rights," says Igor Kochetkov, the head of the LGBT Network, a gay-rights group in St. Petersburg.

"One should not assume that deputies who approved this law are stupid or naive. They are using the sentiments of part of our population, and their aim does not concern only gays and lesbians. It concerns all citizens who have an opinion of their own."

Just weeks after the law was passed in St. Petersburg, Russia's parliament adopted controversial new measures that dramatically increase fines on protesters.

The State Duma is also working on a proposal to make "homosexual propaganda" punishable nationwide.

While some activists have vowed to drag officials before the courts over the antigay laws, others like Aleksandra believe Russian homosexuals are fighting a losing battle.

"I think the law criminalizing homosexuality will eventually return," Aleksandra says. "Something irreparable is taking place, something after which there will be no way back to freedom."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​


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