A couple of weeks ago, when I was trying to decide whether to pin a pink triangle to the lapel of my black overcoat, Sergei Kondrashov was detained by police in the street of Russia’s northern capital with a banner saying, "A dear family friend is a lesbian. My wife and I love and respect her ... and her family is just as equal as ours."
Police officers thought his banner was illegal under the new St. Petersburg law against “gay propaganda.” This law — which purports to protect minors from "gay propaganda" by ensuring that any public act exhibiting or supporting homosexuality that a minor might see is rendered illegal — went into effect in March. St. Petersburg is the fourth Russian region to enact such a law. The laws are so broad and vague that someone could be arrested for anything from holding a rainbow flag to running a helpline for gay teenagers.
Despite strong international criticism, including by the European Union and the UK foreign office, a growing number of officials in Moscow and on the federal level are discussing in earnest the adoption of similar legislation in Russia’s capital and nationwide.
Feeling personally threatened, the journalist Masha Gessen, author of "The Man Without a Face," a biography of Vladimir Putin, gave a striking video interview to explain what such a law could do to her family and other gay families across Russia. Gessen showed the photographs of her three children, from 2 months to 13 years of age, and emphasized that the law adopted in St. Petersburg and likely to be reproduced countrywide specifically banned people from “creating distorted perceptions about social equality of traditional and non-traditional family relationships.”
“So, if my partner and I tell the kids that our family is no worse than other families, the both of us will be effectively breaking the law and will have to pay the fine of 5,000 rubles ($167) each and every day,” Gessen said.
Recently, LGBT organizations in St. Petersburg bought advertising space from a company that then refused to display their ads for fear of a fine. The billboards were to depict images of the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva and the dancer Rudolf Nureyev and quotes from them about their same-sex beloveds. Ultimately this last-minute breach of contract equates to a ban on advertising any pro-LGBT messages.
It seems that fears activists had as the bill was making its way through the St. Petersburg legislature are already coming true. The law is being used to silence the work of LGBT organizations and activists. But it also carried an even more frightening message, around which gay and straight people are beginning to rally in opposition.
The “gay propaganda” legislation is reminiscent of fascism in defining sexual minorities as unequal and denying them access to the same set of rights. Emphasizing that societies that prey on their gay communities will very soon prey on other groups, Gessen has called on people to wear pink triangles in protest, harking back to the days when people were sent to Nazi concentration camps on the basis of their sexuality.
Russia’s unwillingness to uphold its obligations to respect LGBT rights was explicitly displayed at the recent G8 Meeting in Washington, where a human rights statement was adopted containing a sentence that Russia refused to endorse. It reads: “The ministers reaffirmed that human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all individuals, male and female, including lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.”
On April 13, commenting on his government’s refusal to endorse this clause, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made a noteworthy remark, “Under the pretext of protecting the so-called sexual minorities, in effect there’s aggressive propaganda and the imposition of certain behavior and values that may insult the majority of the society.” According to Ryabkov, LGBT individuals do not qualify for protection under international human rights law. Unfortunately, his remarks were hardly a surprise. A few weeks earlier, when the law in St. Petersburg was about to come into force, Ryabkov’s boss, Sergei Lavrov, asserted in a media interview that Russia “was trying to protect the society from homosexual propaganda” and argued that this approach was acceptable as rights of sexual minorities were nothing but an outside “appendage to the universal values.”
Such unfounded claims of course do not in any way change the reality of Russia’s international human rights obligations. For example, in October 2010 the European Court of Human Rights found Russia in violation of its obligations for repeatedly denying activists the right to hold gay pride marches, and instructed Russia that it must comply with its obligations in the future. The court clearly emphasized that there is “no ambiguity” about “the right of individuals to openly identify themselves as gay, lesbian or any other sexual minority, and to promote their rights and freedoms, in particular by exercising their freedom of peaceful assembly.”
The existing homophobic regional laws violate both international human rights law and Russia’s own constitutional provisions on non-discrimination and freedom of expression.
It’s therefore outrageous, bordering on the absurd, that instead of quashing those laws, the authorities are debating efforts to legitimize homophobia at the federal level under the guise of protecting minors and upholding public morals.
All of this was new to Sergey Kondrashov, who held up that banner in St. Petersburg earlier this month. Sergey never considered himself an activist until he stood on the streets and backed a simple message of equality and dignity, which led to his arrest.
This week Kondrashev faced a court of law and was charged with disobeying police orders. The judge, however, did not invoke the “homosexual propaganda” law, citing a lack of evidence and protocols. While the judge used purely formal, procedural reasons to justify this decision, what happened in that court room inspires some hope.
As Kondrashov assessed the situation himself, "The courts are afraid of applying this law and do not want to take responsibility for its further enforcement.”
International criticism will be more effective in shifting Russia’s stand on the issue if more ordinary, “straight” Russians like Kondrashov realize that they too are now activists if they believe in equality and want the best for their friends and other people who happen to be gay. “This is the beginning of a long fight: I will continue to stand for what is right,” Kondrashov said.
I don’t like wearing any insignia on my clothes. Never did and still don’t. But seeing discrimination legitimized in the country and listening to disgraceful official justifications, you are simply compelled to do something to show that you are not supporting this raging homophobic campaign.
As real spring finally came to Moscow bringing long-awaited sunshine and warmth, I have re-pinned the pink triangle from the lapel of my coat to my lightweight jacket. It’s a small thing, but many small things can actually change the world.