As the lead singer of a St. Petersburg rock band, Gena Bogolepov has seldom taken an active interest in politics.
But a bill working its way through the city's Legislative Assembly that would outlaw so-called “homosexual propaganda” has changed all that.
With the legislation on the verge of passage, Bogolepov, a 26-year-old homosexual, has cast off his political apathy and begun to actively protest what he sees as the authorities' latest move to marginalize sexual minorities.
“The problem is that [this law] can be used in any way that they want to use it. The term ‘propaganda’ is very wide," Bogolepov says. "Any person who is homosexual may actually qualify as the ‘propaganda’ itself. This legislation unties the hands of the government [to act] against all transgendered, bisexual, and homosexual people.”
The bill, which equates openly professing homosexuality with promoting pedophilia, sailed through its first reading in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly by a vote of 37-1.
If the bill passes in its current form, individuals could be fined between 3,000 to 5,000 rubles ($100 to $160) for publicly promoting their homosexuality. Organizations could be fined up to 50,000 rubles ($1,600) for “public activities promoting sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transsexuality.”
Gays As Scapegoats
Russian gay rights groups see the legislation as the latest step in a longstanding -- and disturbing -- trend in Russia, where gay pride marches are consistently prohibited and violently broken up by police and where prominent politicians regularly make transparently homophobic comments.
Nikolai Alekseyev, the founder of Moscow Gay Pride, says the St. Petersburg authorities have proposed the new legislation in order to pander to homophobic attitudes in society ahead of the State Duma elections on December 4.
“In my view, this is a topic that appeals to the majority of the electorate ahead of elections," Alekseyev says. "Gays are being used as scapegoats in this electoral campaign as people who are responsible for all the problems in the country -- social, economic, and so on. That’s why I think they are implementing this law now in particular.”
Bogolepov, meanwhile, says the legislation has driven him and his friends toward activism. He has started blogging to raise awareness of the issue, has signed several petitions submitted to the local authorities, and intends to join public demonstrations against the legislation.
Activists protest the law prohibiting homosexual "propaganda" in St. Petersburg on November 23. Elena Babich, a local lawmaker from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party who voted in favor of the bill in its first reading, told RFE/RL that the crucial second reading was due to have taken place on November 23. The vote was postponed until an “unspecified date,” however, because some legislators thought it was too vague in defining what constitutes “propaganda.”
She also said that promoting pedophilia should carry a much more severe punishment than a fine and that “gay rights” should also be protected in the clause prohibiting “homosexual propaganda.”
'What Kind Of Rainbow Is This?'
In comments to the daily "Izvestia," however, Babich appeared less concerned with gay rights, saying homosexual “propaganda” had to be outlawed to prevent Russia’s demographic crisis from worsening.
In those comments, Babich also made the questionable claim that Germany is facing a demographic crisis due to that country's embrace of gay rights. Additionally, she disparaged the rainbow symbol used by gay rights advocates.
“In Germany, it’s long been clear that the nation is dying," she said. "On City Day across the whole of St. Petersburg, we hang the picture of Peter the Great and a bright rainbow. What kind of rainbow is this when it is the symbol of gays? We have it all over the city – whether it’s the 'Rainbow Kindergarten' or the 'Rainbow Drug Store.' We’re all happy about it. Soon we’ll be so happy that we’re all dead.”
Valentina Matvienko, St. Petersburg's former governor who is now speaker of the Federation Council, proposed on November 17 that the provisions in the bill be implemented Russia-wide.
"Tough laws need to be introduced against everything that destroys the mind and health of a child. If this law is going to have its positive impact, then we can look at the question of implementing the initiative on a federal level,” Matvienko said.
Alekseyev, however, said he doubts Russia will seek to implement the bill on a federal level, which would potentially cause a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights. He notes that a similar federal law, proposed by a member of the ruling United Russia party, was shelved back in 2009.
Bills similar to the one pending in St. Petersburg, however, have already been implemented in other Russian regions. Ryazan Oblast, 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow, implemented a similar law in 2006 and Arkhangelsk Oblast on the White Sea did so in September of this year.
Tom Balmforth writes for RFE/RL.