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St. Petersburg LGBT Activists Test 'Propaganda Law' With Tolerance Event

Young people at the private club Malevich in St. Petersburg in February.
When Moscow authorities this week rejected an application to hold a gay-rights event later this month, it didn't raise eyebrows considering the city's long record of hostility to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) events.

More surprising was an announcement last week that authorities in St. Petersburg had accepted an application to hold a similar rally on May 17 to mark International Day Against Homophobia.

Last year, St. Petersburg became the first region in Russia to pass a law criminalizing "propagandizing to minors about homosexuality or pedophilia." Similar laws have since been adopted by about 10 regions, and the State Duma seems likely to pass a national ban later this summer. In addition, various countries and municipalities in former Soviet countries have either adopted similar prohibitions or are considering it.

Speaking Up

The Petersburg activists have taken advantage of an initiative launched in 2009 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev to set up "free-speech zones" in Russian cities along the lines of Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park.

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During a visit to London in April 2009, Medvedev said of Speaker's Corner: "It looks cool. I need to speak with the Russian authorities and build our very own Hyde Park."

In St. Petersburg, authorities designated a portion of a downtown green space called Marsovo Pole as that city's Hyde Park, a place where citizens can hold events merely after notifying authorities, rather than going through the often arduous process of receiving official permission that is required to hold them elsewhere.
Gay-rights activists hold a protest outside the State Duma in January as a new law against disseminating "homosexual propaganda" to minors was being debated by Russian legislators.
Gay-rights activists hold a protest outside the State Duma in January as a new law against disseminating "homosexual propaganda" to minors was being debated by Russian legislators.

"This is a place where getting permission is much easier -- essentially, permission isn't necessary," Olga Lenkova, communications director of the LGBT-rights organization Vykhod, in St. Petersburg, says. "It is only necessary to inform the authorities that we plan to hold a demonstration, but formal permission isn't needed. That's why the city administration now is saying they didn't give permission for the demonstration, because official permission isn't required."

Lenkova says she expects up to 100 people to attend the event, which will feature a few speeches and a release of balloons. She adds that the entire event is dedicated to Vladislav Tornovoi, who was brutally murdered on May 9 in the southern city of Volgograd, reportedly after coming out as gay to two drinking companions.

'The Voronezh Treatment'

The thrust of the rally will be to promote tolerance and to emphasize that LGBT citizens have the same rights as other Russians.

The same tactic did not work in Moscow. Authorities there on May 15 rejected an application by activists to hold a demonstration on May 25-26 in the "Hyde Park" that has been set up in Sokolniki Park. Officials said the space had already been booked for other, unspecified events. LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseyev said he intends to appeal the decision in court, and added that another application has been submitted for May 27.

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Immediately after the event was announced, a message appeared on the social-media pages of St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov -- the author and main advocate of the "gay propaganda" law -- calling on authorities not to allow it.

Lenkova calls the reaction "predictable."

"There has been a reaction and it has been predictably negative," Lenkova says. "Among other things, we have received threats -- direct and indirect threats -- against announced participants, calls not to allow 'perversions,' and so on. They have been completely expected types of expressions."

On May 13, LGBT activists in St. Petersburg filed a complaint to prosecutors about Milonov for a statement he made on his Twitter feed on May 1. Responding to a photograph of an LGBT rainbow banner at a May Day event in the city, Mironov tweeted: "Next time we'll give them the Voronezh treatment. We are tired of it."

Activists say Milonov was referring to a sanctioned January 20 gay-rights demonstration in Voronezh against a local version of his "gay propaganda" bill that was attacked by dozens of ultranationalist youths, leading to several injuries. The day after the event, Milonov tweeted: "Voronezh -- good job" and "Voronezh -- well done!"

In their complaint to prosecutors, the activists wrote: "A deputy's mandate presupposes respect for the law, not the endorsement of its violation. The rally on Marsovo Pole on May 17 is being conducted in strict accordance with the law and the constitution of the Russian Federation."

Activist Lenkova tells RFE/RL that organizers have reported the threats they have received to the police and are in talks with law enforcement about ensuring security at the May 17 event.

She adds that police have not made any statements about what may or may not be done at the rally to avoid violating the law on "gay propaganda."