In November 2011 St Petersburg shocked the world. The legislative assembly approved, in its first reading, a bill which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality, transsexuality and paedophilia to minors. The passage of the bill provoked a quick reaction from local LGBT activists, who organised several protests against the initiative. It also mobilised the international community. The bill was condemned by MEPs, the US state department and thousands of people from around the world, who signed an online petition against its implementation.
St Petersburg, which is deemed the cultural capital of Russia, the place where many famous gay people created our artistic heritage, entered into the 21st century’s hall of shame by drifting into medieval barbarity.
The bill that was proposed in St Petersburg sets administrative fines for the propaganda of homosexuality, transsexuality and paedophilia but it does not explain what “propaganda” actually means. For what is the difference between the public expression of someone’s loving feelings and the promotion of a lifestyle? Can a work of art be considered propaganda? Can a protest for human rights be considered as imposing one’s personal characteristics on others?
The St Petersburg bill does not answer these questions. In fact, it not only equates homosexuality to paedophilia but also separates homosexuality and heterosexuality, as the latter, in the MPs’ view, can be promoted.
The city – where the famous Russian gay composer Peter Tchaikovsky lived, worked and died just days after conducting his Sixth Pathétique symphony, where the gay writer Nikolay Gogol wrote many of his classical works, and where a gay ballet dancer in the form of Rudolf Nureyev gracefully flew over the stage of the Mariinskiy Theatre – turned out to be in the hands of uneducated clericals. Will they ever be well known by the world, except for their anti-gay hatred?
What is sure is that if the bill does pass, the hundreds of tourists aboard Baltic Gay Cruise of Atlantis will hardly feel themselves as safe as before, when they step on St Petersburg soil in July 2012.
International and local protests are very important in finding a solution to this homophobic initiative. But the roots of this plague are not in the northern capital of Russia. They are just 180km from Russia’s capital Moscow, in the city of Ryazan. In 2006 local lawmakers adopted the first ever law prohibiting propaganda of homosexuality to minors in Russia. This law was meant to stigmatise Russian gays and lesbians, but was ultimately merely symbolic, as in five years it was only used once. When the activists of Moscow Pride and GayRussia went to Ryazan to help educate minors that homosexuality is normal, they were arrested, detained, fined and challenged in the courts.
The case of Nikolay Bayev v Russia, challenging the propaganda laws of Ryazan, has been pending before the European court of human rights since November 2009. The opening of this case by Strasbourg judges is now the only legally binding way to challenge Ryazan, St Petersburg and any future, even possibly, federal law, prohibiting the propaganda of homosexuality in Russia.
The LGBT community has to unite around this case now to stop similar initiatives, not only in Russia but also in other European countries where similar bills are being discussed, such as Lithuania and Ukraine. Because this issue is not only Russian: it is an eastern European one. And this case can put a final stop to the issue by creating a European precedent.
Gay people are being used as scapegoats in Russian politics, where society is still largely homophobic. The St Petersburg initiative, coming just before the parliamentary elections on 4 December, is possibly just aiming to increase the vote for the ailing ruling United Russia party of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, but it also creates an atmosphere of hatred in society.
This atmosphere is made clear when the governor of Tambov called for gays to be torn into pieces and thrown in the wind, or when former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov called us alternatively “satanic”, “faggots”, “western weapons of mass destruction” and made us responsible for the spread of HIV”.
In June 1961, Rudolf Nureyev fled from the USSR, asking for political asylum in France. He became a star in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), but went far beyond the official constraints on his liberty, creativity and expression of his times. I hope that the Russian LGBT people of today will not one day wake up facing similar challenges that will force them to leave their country forever.