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St. Petersburg's 'gay propaganda' law has LGBT Russians wary

The law has resulted in more than 70 arrests, though only one conviction, since being implemented in the spring. But some say it has also galvanized the community to stand up for itself.

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"I don't show my love for my boyfriend openly," said Alexander Petrov, a volunteer at the event, adding, "but I wouldn't have done that before either." Still, later Mr. Petrov later sought out a photojournalist and asked not to have his picture published in Russia.

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Attendee Janet Yurieva, sporting a shaved head and a slight figure, made a similar point. "Because I don't look like a normal girl, I'm afraid to go out on the street," she said. "I don't dare to kiss my girlfriend outside. Maybe somewhere no one can see us."

She said she had long experienced homophobia, even at home. "I told my mom I was lesbian a few months ago. She started crying and blamed everything on my dad for leaving us when I was young."

But Ms. Savchenko, who flitted in and out of the grand exhibition hall, greeting friends and colleagues and moving proceedings along, said she saw an upside to the law. "I actually believe the law has done more good than bad,” she said. “Why? Because it has mobilized the LGBT community in our city. Before, no one would fight for their rights. People were OK with keeping their sexual orientation a secret. But now they're angry and ready to defend themselves."

Foreign criticism

Abroad, the law has drawn heavy criticism. Indeed, one of the features of the event was a video appearance by Ian McKellan, the renowned British actor best known as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Wearing a simple T-shirt that said "Some people are gay. Get over it," Mr. McKellen told the suit-clad diplomats and hipster-styled party-goers in attendance that the fight for LGBT rights was a global one and wished St. Petersburg good luck to roaring cheers from the crowd.

Also at the festival opening, British Consul General to St. Petersburg Gareth Ward addressed the audience of about 100 invitees. He drew attention to the fact that gay rights had been secured step by step in his home country. British Foreign Office staff could not be openly gay until 1991, he noted.

"We've all had prejudices in our societies, but it can change," Mr. Ward said after his speech. "As a member nation of the Council of Europe, Russia does have to listen to its neighbors," he added.

Ward had several colleagues in attendance, from Germany and France, among others – notably all from western European nations. "We voiced our concern last fall even before the law was formerly introduced," said Sweden's consul general to St. Petersburg, Jan Nyberg. "So the authorities ought to know what we think."

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