President Barack Obama, who is in Russia to attend a Group of 20 summit that seems doomed to highlight his differences over Syria with host Vladimir Putin, will likely further irk the Kremlin with his announced plan to meet in St. Petersburg Friday with Russian LGBT activists and other human rights monitors.
It's a meeting that would be controversial even if US-Russian relations were otherwise going well – and they are not. Kremlin officials will certainly decry Mr. Obama's interest in the new restrictions facing gay people in Russia as a distraction, or worse, from the big geopolitical and economic issues that leaders of the world's 20 major economic powers have gathered to discuss. Many ordinary Russians may be genuinely perplexed over why their country's inner social dynamics are being placed under a global magnifying glass.
But members of Russia's LGBT community say their situation has grown increasingly dire since Mr. Putin signed a new law last June that bans the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." Though the law has been widely mischaracterized in the West as "outlawing homosexuality" – it does not – it effectively makes any public expression or display of "non-traditional" sexual orientation that might be seen by minors subject to criminal penalties. It's somewhat like the US Army's former "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule, but applied to the entire society, requiring LGBT persons to keep their orientation secret and applying strict punishment if they don't.
"The situation with LGBT people has changed dramatically since the first [anti-gay] measures were adopted here in St. Petersburg a year and a half ago," says Sasha Semyonova, project coordinator with Vikhod [Coming Out], one of the LGBT groups invited to talk with Mr. Obama tomorrow.
"Incidents of violence have multiplied. We've been keeping track of statistics for a couple of years now, and it's clear that hate crimes are sharply on the rise against LGBT people. That includes threats, offensive social media postings, people being fired – especially teachers – for who they are, as well as a growing number of outright violent incidents. We put this down to the atmosphere of impunity that's been created by this law. And now there is this new bill before the State Duma, which would empower the state to take children away from LGBT families," she says.
"We are extremely alarmed about the way things are going. If Obama has any questions, we will be happy to answer them," Ms. Semyonova adds.
Putin on defense
The issue has attracted condemnation from governments around the developed world, and also prompted civil society protests including a declared boycott of Russian vodka, a global effort to convince cities with Russian twins to sever those ties and, most worrisome for the Kremlin, an attempt to persuade people around the world to stay away from the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
In an extensive interview Tuesday, Putin appeared to be a bit blindsided by all the controversy.
"We have no laws against people with non-traditional sexual orientation.... You [the Western media] kind of create an illusion among millions of spectators that we do have such laws, but we do not. Russia has adopted the law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, but these are completely different things," he said.
"In our country, first of all, the rights of people with non-traditional orientation are infringed neither in terms of profession, nor in terms of salary level, nor even, if they make achievements in art, work, they are not infringed even in terms of recognition of their results by the state. They are absolutely full-fledged and equal in rights citizens of the Russian Federation.... I assure you, I work with such people. Sometimes I award state medals and orders to them for their achievements in certain spheres. We have absolutely normal relations, and there is nothing special about it. Some people say Pyotr Tchaikovsky was homosexual, but we do like him, although for a different reason. He was a great musician and all of us love the music he composed. So what? One should not blow things out of proportion, nothing terrible is happening in this country."
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. Since then the society, which is fairly secular and liberal with respect to most sexual mores – abortion, divorce, pre-marital and extra-marital sex are common – has remained at much the same stage Western countries were 40 years ago regarding LGBT issues, with majorities routinely telling pollsters they view gay rights in a negative light .
But life, especially in big cities, has evolved. Gay people, going about their lives, are now as visible on Moscow's social, arts, and show-business scene, as well as in the streets, as they are in any Western capital.
Now, thanks to a vaguely-worded law, any outward expression of gay personal orientation may now lead to being fired.
The new legislation is already being combined with other new laws and invoked in ways that lawmakers insisted they would not be when they framed them. That includes efforts to shut down a St. Petersburg LGBT-themed adult film festival, and the recent seizure of several satirical paintings, which depicted Putin in drag and lampooned other officials for their alleged homophobia, from a private art gallery.
The law affects not only LGBT people, but anyone who wants to publicly discuss themes related to sexual orientation. Editors of all media organizations are now forced to place a disclaimer above any material that mentions LGBT issues that "this material is not suitable for readers younger than 18." Even the Kremlin's RIA-Novosti, which has been trying – with some success – to make itself over as a competitive news agency in several languages including English, is apparently required to do this .
"This law in Russia comes at a time when great breakthroughs are being made in the West in terms of expanding freedom for minorities, which only highlights the way Russia seems to be sliding backward," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.
"Once the government opted to back social conservatism as a policy, as it has, it takes on a life of its own. And here we see the consequences of removing checks and balances from our political system. The authorities can get any law passed, without criticism, and in short order. That's what happened with the anti-gay law. It's clear nobody stood up and warned that this could give Russia's image a black eye in the world, and possibly impact the Sochi Games. This is a vaguely-worded law, whose consequences at home and abroad never benefited from any proper legislative scrutiny," she says.
The original author of Russia's anti-gay legislation, St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, insists that "nothing has changed for gay society" since the law was adopted, and he slams Obama for intruding into Russia's internal affairs.
"I find it immoral when a person who is about to start killing tens of thousands of peaceful inhabitants in Syria wishes to discuss problems connected with the sexual joys of a small group of Russia's population, which are of no interest to anybody in our country. I understand it might be part of PR campaign by Mr. Obama, but to insist on discussing it on the eve of World War III is beyond my understanding," Mr. Milonov told the Monitor by phone Thursday.