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.

Ann Törnkvist
Polina Savchenko, of the LGBT rights organization 'Coming Out,' poses for a photo on opening night of Queer Fest 2012 on September 20, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The annual festival began in 2009 with this year's edition the first since the city introduced a law banning homosexual propaganda to minors.
Ann Törnkvist
Visitors pose for a photo at opening night of Queer Fest 2012 on September 20, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The annual festival began in 2009 with this year's edition the first since the city introduced a law banning homosexual propaganda to minors.

Eight burly guards in black suits ushered guests into an anonymous building on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, as activists, artists, and diplomats gathered last month for the opening of the city's Queer Fest – the first time the annual event has been held under the shadow of a new law against "gay propaganda" aimed at minors.

But while the law has largely been used as a club against the city's gay community, some say that it has not done much – and may even have galvanized the community to stand up for their rights.

The law, signed into effect by St. Petersburg's governor this spring, outlaws "public action aimed at propagandizing sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors." Individuals found guilty face up to a 5,000-ruble fine, about $160. Government officials and businesses face much higher maximum fines of 50,000 rubles ($1,600) and 500,000 rubles ($16,000) respectively.

According to Agence France-Presse, more than 70 people have been arrested for violating the law, though only one person, high-profile LGBT activist Nikolay Alekseyev, has been convicted. He has admitted to pushing boundaries in order to draw attention to and challenge the law.

Similar laws already existed in a handful of cities. Some proponents in the State Duma have said a national law would be desirable.

Almost three-quarters of Russians surveyed said homosexuals were immoral or suffered psychological problems, according to a survey by the research institute Levada in 2010. Still, almost half of respondents believed homosexuals had the right to equality with heterosexual citizens.

Critics say authorities apply the law arbitrarily, often as a handy pretext to clear the streets of demonstrators. Polina Savchenko, from the organization Coming Out St. Petersburg, says, "The police arrest people citing the new law, but once you're in custody they drop those charges for others, such as disorderly conduct."

A chilly environment

The law's wording is unclear regarding what it actually bars, leaving the city's LGBT community to walk on eggshells. The Queer Fest event itself, for example – where portraits of lesbians lined the hall's grand staircase and community advocates spoke freely – was limited to an 18-plus crowd by organizers for fear that it might be classified as propaganda.

Several attendees also noted that they were unsure what the law actually entailed – though they were afraid of persecution even before it was introduced.

"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.

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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