When Sasha understood that she was a lesbian, she knew many challenges lay ahead for her in Russia.
But nothing prepared the young woman for the possibility of social services taking her child away.
A new bill, however, could soon make this a reality for the estimated 2 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Russians who the authorities believe are raising children.
"I'm scared," says Sasha, who lives in St. Petersburg with her longtime partner, Marina, and Marina's 3-year-old biological son. "I'm scared our family will be violated."
The draft law, which comes on the heels of controversial legislation banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," would make homosexuality a condition that can lead to parents losing custody over their children. If passed and signed into law, it would put homosexuality on a par with drug addiction and child abuse.
"In the case when a parent has sexual contact with people of their own gender, the damage that can be inflicted on the psyche of a child is enormous," lawmaker Aleksei Zhuravlyov, the bill's author, wrote in his proposal.
The bill was submitted to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, earlier this month and is expected to go through its first reading in coming weeks.
A spokeswoman for Zhuravlyov, a member of the ruling United Russia party, said he did not wish to comment.
Human rights advocates have strongly condemned the proposed law. They warn it would violate basic human rights and condemn gay parents and their children to a life of lies.
Back In The Shadows
The bill has also stoked panic among Russia's already embattled LGBT community, which has reported a surge in verbal and physical assaults since President Vladimir Putin signed the "gay propaganda" bill into law in June.
"These laws are already having a real impact," says Sasha. "They are inciting enmity between people, it's a genuine witch hunt. They are setting people against each other like dogs."
Sasha declines to give her full name. She says she and Marina have been particularly prudent since a local version of the propaganda legislation came into force in St. Petersburg last year.
The two women tell neighbors and colleagues that they are sisters. This has been a source of deep heartache, particularly for Sasha. "I can never openly say that I'm as much his parent as Marina -- not at the doctor's, not at school," she says. "But it's a reality I have to live with. As long as we live in this country, I will never be able to truly explain to anyone who I am, not even to our son. I've had to work hard on myself to accept this."
Although Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, hostility toward gays and lesbians is still rife. The raft of initiatives -- which include a proposed ban on homosexuals donating blood -- has only strengthened the widely-held belief in Russia that homosexuality is either a crime or a disease that requires medical treatment.
Gays and lesbians say they are being unfairly blamed for social problems such as the country's low birthrate or its HIV/AIDS epidemic.
To protest plans to strip homosexuals of parental rights, Yelena Kostyuchenko, a prominent Moscow-based journalist and gay-rights activist, announced earlier this month that she was compiling a list of closeted homosexuals at the State Duma. Kostyuchenko is threatening to publish the names of allegedly gay deputies who fail to vote against the bill.
But she predicts that the legislation, like most initiatives penned by United Russia, will sail through the Duma. LGBT parents, she adds, are already fleeing the country or relocating to locations in Russia where their sexual orientation is not know.
"After this bill was announced, almost all homosexuals are leaving. Those unable to go abroad move to other Russian cities," she says. "I know that many families with children, especially lesbian families, are buying weapons. They have no intention of giving up their children and are ready to defend themselves if someone comes for them."
Sasha and Marina have decided to stay in Russia for now. Sasha, who runs her own public relations agency, says they are reluctant to abandon their country, jobs, and families.
The two women nonetheless remain prepared to pack their suitcases if their son's safety is threatened. "If people start throwing rotten eggs and Molotov cocktails through our windows, for example, then of course we will leave," she says. "And this could actually happen any time. To be honest, I'm not very optimistic. I try to stay positive but I'm in very low spirits."