St Petersburg: Gay communities living in fear

As Russia launches a new legal crackdown, homosexuality is becoming a love that dare not speak its name

"I've told my husband I am leaving him, and I've told my parents that I've met someone I am truly in love with and am leaving my marriage," says Anna. The rest of the group, sitting on plastic chairs arranged in a circle, listen attentively. "I just don't know how to tell them yet that the other person is a woman."

Once a week, on a Monday evening, the group gathers in a conference room near the Moscow railway station in St Petersburg. Gay people come to tell their stories and to get advice on how to break the news of their sexuality to their parents. In Russia, where there is little sex education at school and widespread homophobia, breaking the news to family and friends can be difficult, and on hand to advise are a number of gay young people and their mothers, who have gone through the process themselves and want to help others.

But a controversial new law in St Petersburg now makes life even harder for the organisers of the support group, as well as for anyone who wants to take the issue of gay rights seriously. From this week, local law makes it illegal for anyone to disseminate "homosexual propaganda" among minors, or to suggest that homosexual relations are a normal form of human interaction on a par with heterosexual relations. The bill, passed by the local parliament last month and now signed into law, provides for fines of up to £100 for individuals and £10,000 for organisations that violate it. This week, it was announced that Russia's federal parliament will consider adopting the law nationally.

"The way the law is formulated is extremely vague, so nobody can say exactly what would be punished by it," says Igor Kochetkov, a leading gay rights activist in the city. "But it means all our work on education and informing people could now be seen as illegal."

Any teacher who reassures children that there is nothing abnormal about homosexual feelings, any doctor who gives sexual health advice to gay young people, or anyone (such as those in the support group) who disseminates literature about coming out can be held to have flouted the law. Even counselling anguished and suicidal gay teenagers could theoretically be illegal.

The initiator of the law is Vitaly Milonov, a local MP from Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. He has criticised gay rights as being a European imposition on Russia.

"We know that the gay community is a very powerful lobbying structure," said Mr Milonov in an interview with The St Petersburg Times this week. "They have their office in Brussels, they are welcome at the United Nations, the European Council and so on, but this is Europe's problem; why should we copy European laws? Not everything they have in Europe is acceptable for Russia."

His law also appears to equate homosexuality with paedophilia, as it also bans "propaganda" for the latter.

"I've seen photographs where men with all sorts of dildos are running around semi-naked," said Mr Milonov, referring to gay pride events, which have always been banned in Russian cities. "It's natural that I'd try to take my children aside, so that they would not see this perversion."

Mr Milonov has also promised to "monitor the moral content" of a concert by the pop singer Madonna in St Petersburg in August. Madonna has said she will speak out against the law and could end up being fined if she is found to be "propagandising" homosexuality from the stage.

Gay rights have never received much recognition in Russia, where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993. The former Mayor of Moscow once referred to gay people as "Satanists", and activists who have tried to organise gay pride marches in Moscow have been attacked by skinheads and arrested by riot police. But the new law takes things further. Already in force in two provincial Russian regions, its adoption in Russia's most European and Westernised city has come as a shock to many.

"We have always been the most cultured, progressive and civilised city in Russia, and now we're a joke," says Konstantin Rotikov, a historian who has written a history of gay St Petersburg.

Mr Rotikov says that, apart from well-known gay residents of St Petersburg such as the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a number of well-known noble figures and top Tsarist officials may well have led secret homosexual lives while being married for the sake of appearances. There are even rumours that Peter the Great, the founder of St Petersburg, may have had more than a Platonic friendship with his long-term companion Alexander Menshikov.

After the October revolution of 1917, homosexual activity was briefly made legal, before Josef Stalin had it banned again in the 1930s. "Funnily enough, the insinuation then was the same as it is now," says Mr Rotikov. "Then they said that gays were agents of the West who were trying to destroy the Soviet Union; now they say that gay activists are being supported by Western money and trying to destroy Russia."

Two of the mothers who set up the support group, one of whom only found out that her 40-year-old son was gay two years ago, spoke at the parliamentary hearings devoted to discussion of the law. They were whistled, booed and abused. "People told us that our children were sick and needed to be treated," says 65-year-old Elena Musolina. "They told us we were victims of Satan, or agents of foreign countries." Surveys show that around 80 per cent of local residents support the new law, which also has the backing of the Orthodox Church, and there is no doubt that Russian society is deeply socially conservative.

As more young gay people tell their stories at the group, including a nervous 17-year-old, who says his father has accepted that he is gay but refuses to allow him to be seen outside with his boyfriend, discussion turns to the law. Everyone agrees that the main problem is a lack of knowledge. "Having literature to read can really help, and talking to others makes you realise that what you are going through is not unique," says Ms Musolina.

"I knew nothing about gay people as I'd never really met anyone openly gay," says Anna Belodedova, 55, whose 30-year-old son is gay. "It's pretty much the same for everyone here. We all thought they were perverts, and had heard things about Aids, and disgusting nightclubs, and other awful things on the television and in the newspapers."

It was only when she came to the support groups and saw a whole room of ordinary-looking people with ordinary stories to tell that she realised it was not like that. "The more that people know about gays and gay life, the more they will understand it. But instead, we now have this law that is doing the exact opposite, and making it even harder for people to discuss the issues openly."

Love and the law: Russia's reforms

While the wording of the law is vague, there is no doubt that it could have a serious effect. In Arkhangelsk in the north, where a similar law came into force last September, there have been no arrests, but there is a feeling of stigma, and the work of volunteer counsellors has become harder. "Gay people feel like second- class citizens," says Tatyana Vinnichenko, the head of Rakurs, a local gay rights organisation.

Partner organisations, fearful of running foul of the law, have cancelled their co-operation with gay rights groups. "We used to run seminars for doctors on health issues specifically relevant to gay men, but the centre we did it with says they don't want to work with us any more in case it causes them problems," says Ms Vinnichenko.

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