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Russia's Anti-Gay Law Sparks Backlash

Russia will host the Winter Olympics in Sochi six months from now, the World Cup in 2018 and is bidding for the World Expo in 2020. But a new law banning expressions of support for gay rights has generated a worldwide backlash that has blindsided the Kremlin.

Even as support for same-sex marriage has steadily increased in the West, homophobic violence and stigma are rampant in Russia.

This year, there have been at least two killings motivated by anti-gay bias in the country, including a 23-year-old Volgograd man whose skull was smashed after he was raped with beer bottles.

In May, a gay activist was attacked in front of Moscow's State Duma. Six more were detained last month after attempting to stage a protest outside a children's library in the Russian capital.

The anti-gay propaganda law, passed overwhelmingly in parliament and signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, is supposed to protect minors by banning public discussion of "non-traditional sexual relationships." It is modeled on similar legislation for the city of St. Petersburg whose main author is Russian legislator Vitaly Milonov, an outspoken proponent of Russia’s Orthodox Church.

Milonov has branded gay people "perverts," and has accused activists of colluding with Western governments to convert Russian children into homosexuals.

"We demand that law enforcement defend us and stop propaganda of sodomy and [the] pedophilia of children," Milonov said at an anti-gay rally in May.

'Creeping authoritarianism'

Critics say the law is really an attempt to criminalize homosexuality and Russia's fledgling gay rights movement.

The legislation is part of a broad attack on civil society groups in Russia, according to British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

"We're seeing journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and political opposition activists being harassed, arrested, and, in some cases, framed on trumped up charges. So that's the context of this new law. Its part of a creeping authoritarianism," Tatchell said.

The trend has not gone unnoticed in the West, where gay bars have dumped Russian vodka and calls have been issued for a boycott of the Sochi Games.

On Saturday, thousands in London and other major cities protested against the anti-gay law. British actor Stephen Fry urged athletes competing at the Olympics to show solidarity with Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"All athletes who attend the Sochi Olympiad next year [should] show their disgust at the homophobia in Russia by a simple gesture, just by [crossing their hands over their chest] for a moment on the podium when they receive their medals or before they do their ski jump or whatever," Fry said.

U.S. President Barack Obama weighed in last week. "Nobody's more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia," Obama said.

Social conservatism

However, there is overwhelming support for the gay propaganda ban in Russia, where almost 75 percent of those polled in a recent Pew Research Center survey said homosexuality should not be accepted by society.

Peter Tatchell said the country's social conservatism plays into Putin's hands.

"In Russia, the Putin far-right regime, in alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, is turning homosexuality into a litmus test of Russian identity and culture. It's a very, very good diversionary tactic, and I think Putin and his party are deliberately exploiting it in order to win political advantage and deflect criticism from their own failures," Tatchell said.

Russian officials, including U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin - confronted by protesters in New York last week - have said the law does not ban homosexuality but was written to protect children.

Gay rights advocates disagree, saying the legislation is vague and can be used to arrest anyone who appears to support LGBT rights.
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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus