Madonna is with the gays of St Petersburg

In a week when NGOs working in Russia were declared “foreign agents”, Nicholas Maltby looks at another piece of Russian legislation that is causing controversy, the law banning “gay propaganda”.

A St. Petersburg ruling that bans homosexual “propaganda” has led to 74 people being punished for the offence, according to Sergei Umnov, the chief of St. Petersburg police. The legislation was signed into law by Georgy Poltavchenko, the governor of St. Petersburg, on 7th March. According to Umnov, 73 people have been charged for homosexual propaganda and 1 person has been charged for paedophile propaganda.   The effect of the law banning homosexual propaganda will be tested when Madonna performs in St. Petersburg on August 9th.

Madonna has declared herself a “freedom fighter” and said she “will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community” against “this ridiculous atrocity”. The author of the legislation, Vitali Milonov, said he is “ready to personally suffer a couple of hours of her concert” in order to ensure that Madonna does not flout the law. Milonov, who is a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, has claimed he is taking a stand for his Orthodox Christian faith and protecting Russian values from Western influence. In the Washington Post, Milonov is quoted saying, “we cannot change the Bible just because it’s fashionable in Europe… Now is the time when Russia wants to show everybody else where its moral values are.” The Russian Orthodox Church has expressed its support for Milonov’s law and its hope that the ban becomes national legislation.

Homosexuality was legalised in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1993, but it was classified as a mental disorder until 1999. During Soviet rule, homosexuality was an offence punishable with prison time. But gay rights groups have received more prominent coverage and respect on Russia’s state run television in recent years. Still, homophobic sentiment remains prevalent and might be an easy vote winner. A 2010 poll by the Levada Centre reported that 74 percent of the Russians polled viewed gays and lesbians as “morally dissolute of deficient”. The St. Petersburg ban on homosexual propaganda prohibits the dissemination of “information including misrepresented conceptions of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional marriage relations.” It comes at a time when several western governments are moving to recognise marital parity between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Milonov has called the law “a declaration of Russia’s moral sovereignty”.

Igor Kotchetov, the head of ‘Coming Out’, a gay rights group in St. Petersburg, said, “this is a law that can be used, and will be used, to conduct searches of organisations and prevent public actions… Officially, homosexuality will be considered illegal, something incorrect and something that cannot be discussed with children.” The law is nebulous. Homosexual propaganda influencing minors could be deemed something as trivial as holding hands in public. Recently, Nikolai Alekseyev was fined for carrying a poster that said, “Homosexuality is not a perversion. What is a perversion is field hockey and ice dancing.” The law penalises officials with fines ten times larger than those given to non-officials, thus diminishing space in which the issue can be debated. For Kotchetov the law is indicative of a greater mood of state oppression in modern Russia: “This law should not be seen as just an anti-gay move; it comes in a series of recent laws allowing persecutions of opposition activists and NGOs – any different voice is punished in today’s Russia.”