A controversial new law enacted in St. Petersburg and three other Russian regions, aimed at banning "homosexual propaganda aimed at minors," has members of Russia's besieged gay community worrying that all progress toward civil rights for sexual minorites in recent years might be thrown into reverse.
The law, signed last week by St. Petersburg Gov. Georgy Poltavchenko, would impose the equivalent of a $16,000 fine upon anyone "making public actions among minors for the propaganda of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality or transgenderism (LGBT)." Similar laws have recently been enacted in the Russian regions of Ryazan, Archangelsk, and Kostroma.
Today the powerful Russian Orthodox Church weighed in with a call for the Duma, the lower house of parliament, to pass a national version of that law.
"The determination displayed by representatives of sexual minorities and their desire to continue rallying outside children's establishments indicate the timeliness of this regional law, which should, without delay, be given federal status," said Hieromonk Dmitri Pershin, the Orthodox Church's representative on youth issues, according to the official news agency RIA-Novosti.
Leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community say the new laws are not grounded in sound legal concepts, are vaguely written, and seem mainly designed to validate widespread public hostility toward gay people.
"No legal experts seem able to explain how this law would be applied in practice," says Polina Savchenko, general manager of Coming Out, a St. Petersburg LGBT group. "There is a fear that it will be used as an instrument to prevent any kind of activity the state doesn't approve of. The language of the law is so vague that it could apply to any kind of public discourse, any discussion of gay issues, in almost any venue. I mean, how can you be sure that minors won't access the Internet, or read mass media discussions?"
"We already live in a very homophobic environment, and this law just pushes us back in time. In the minds of people, it makes discrimination against gay people appear to be legal again," she adds.
Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, but social hostility remains widespread, with gay pride parades routinely banned in Moscow and other cities, and meeting places frequented by LGBT people subject to frequent police raids.
A 2010 poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 74 percent of Russians regard homosexuality as a result of bad moral choices, or think of it as a "disease." Only 15 percent thought it is just another sexual orientation that "has the same right to existence" as heterosexual lifestyles, 5 percent fewer than in a similar survey five years earlier.
"The church is not the initiator of [these laws], but many believers have been waiting for such legislation to appear," says Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's department of cooperation with society. "The propaganda of [homosexual lifestyles] should not take place where minors can feel its influence; the same is true about heterosexual lechery…. Public manifestations of this way of life are unacceptable for the majority of society. It is our duty to secure our children against it. That have no right to promote their way of life."
Mr. Chaplin frequently generates controversy by advocating for the Russian Orthodox Church's conservative positions, particularly on women's issues. Last year he called for a national dress code that would put pressure on women to shun miniskirts and excess makeup.
Nina Ostanina, a Communist Party deputy who sits on the Duma's committee on family and children's affairs, says there's a possibility that the regional laws might be declared unconstitutional by courts and therefore, she says, the Duma should pass a national law or hand the protection of children entirely over to regional legislatures.
"Russia has already stopped being a unified state from the point of view of legal differences," Ms. Ostanina says. "It's up to the regions to solve this; for me, it's not a violation of the Constitution. People who are a minority in the society should not advocate the fact that they are different from other members of the society."
Ms. Savchenko says that the proposed national law would chill any hope of carrying out a dialogue that might, over time, ease society's homophobic attitudes and promote broader acceptance of LGBT people.
"How can you have a conversation, if one side is constantly in fear of legal retribution?" she says.