Does Russia Hate Gays?

Well, that might be an overstatement. But let’s start with St. Petersburg, the country’s intellectual capital.

The local legislature in St. Petersburg is only one, largely formal reading away from passing a law that would outlaw “homosexual propaganda.” The fines for violators would reportedly cost up to $150 for individuals and $1,500 for organizations.

But here’s the thing: in Russia, it seems that “propaganda” is loosely defined. The bill’s sponsor, a lawmaker from none other than the ruling United Russia party, argued back in November that, since a “wave popularizing sexual perversion” is washing over the city, children need to be protected from “destructive information” – which, in his mind, spans the gamut from literature and events allegedly promoting homosexuality to the mere mention of it on social networks.

Others, frighteningly, have gone even further. Another St. Petersburg lawmaker, from the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (they’re mostly harebrained nationalists), noted that the fines were too low, and rather impressively equated what might otherwise be consensual gay sex with pedophilia while also hinting at an international conspiracy: “What is a 3,000 ruble fine to a pedophile when they’re supported by the international community?” asked lawmaker Elena Babich, Russian news agency Interfax reported after the bill’s first reading in November.

Naturally, rights’ groups are up in arms. Yet this is far from the only battle they’ve had to wage, since St. Petersburg is not the first city to pull such a stunt. Last year, the legislature in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk passed a similar law to reportedly safeguard the moral and physical wellbeing of children (as well as to boost dwindling birthrates), as did the city of Ryazan, a two-hour drive south of Moscow. Not to mention that the capital city itself for nearly 20 years had a mayor who condemned homosexuality as “satanic” and regularly banned pride parades from its streets.

But rather than a few, terrible isolated incidents, these moves reflect a broader trend in Russia today. After being illegal in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1993, and much of the country remains firmly in a conservative state of mind. And it’s not only the authorities who profess a strict social conservatism; besides the handful of urban centers, the majority of Russia is strung together by a patchwork of far-flung towns, villages and provincial centers – where the quality of life is lower, educational opportunities are far less prevalent, and the social demographics are far more homogeneous (read: poor, old and dying).

Given the growing protest trend in Moscow and other major Russian cities, though, one might be forgiven for thinking that, with its calls for democracy, rule of law and greater personal freedoms, the burgeoning anti-establishment movement may appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Russia’s embattled gay population. But on second thought, things are likely less positive than they seem. The St. Petersburg bill passed its second reading nearly unanimously

Dan Peleschuk is a Moscow-based journalist and staff writer at Russia Profile, a current affairs website covering politics, business and culture in Russia and former Soviet Union. He holds a B.A. from ...read more

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