A Russian parliament committee has rejected a bill that would have allowed fines or jail time for public displays of affection or sexuality by anyone who is not heterosexual.
Once it leaves the committee, it goes up for a vote by Parliament, which is likely to reject the bill.
Rights groups welcomed the move, but also called for the repeal of a 2013 “gay propaganda” law that has encouraged discrimination.
The law rejected Monday was proposed by Communist Party members of the legislature. Had it passed, gay people could have been fined between $50 and $65 for public displays of affection. If that “expression of non-traditional sexual relations” was on “territories or in institutions, providing education, culture or youth services,” they faced jail time of up to 15 days.
Human Rights Watch decried the bill as homophobic, while “penalizing people for expressing their identity, a crucial part of anyone’s existence.”
It was a rare win for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people in Russia.
“We're glad the committee is resolved to reject this homophobic bill,” said Human Rights Watch’s Russia Program Director in Moscow Tanya Lokshina in an e-mailed response. “However, the parliament has yet to repeal the 'gay propaganda' bill which has done tremendous damage to Russia's LGBT people."
The 2013 so-called "gay propaganda law" outlaws the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors," a vague description that received much international criticism.
Lokshina says it also has led to increased numbers of attacks on the LGBT community in Russia, “The level of hostility, the level of intolerance with regard to LGBT people have increased very severely in the aftermath of that ‘gay propaganda’ law.”
Sandra, a trans women living in Moscow, tells VOA that since the law was passed, she was beaten in broad daylight and threatened with razors. Her girlfriend called police, who arrived promptly but were reluctant to detain her attackers. "There were no charges at all. I was told that ‘they were fighting with people like you. You are a shame to us. Don't disgrace us.”
The LGBT community has few people to publicly speak for them in government. Despite the second class treatment, President Vladimir Putin defended the "gay propaganda law," saying it does not ban homosexuality. The head of Russia’s state media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya, Dmitry Kiselyov, said in 2012 the hearts of dead gays should be burned or buried, instead of donated, calling them "unfit to live."
Activists say the government uses LGBT people as scapegoats to distract the public from Russia’s real problems by mobilizing so-called Russian traditional values against allegedly foreign ones.
“Likewise, they are presenting LGBT people as alien to Russia, and to Russia’s traditional values,” says Lokshina. “And, to a certain extent, this strategy has been very keen to divert public attention from economic woes.”
Despite the oppressive atmosphere, some LGBT activists refuse to stay silent. Vladimir Komov, a Teachers’ Union Head, and engineer Dmitry Svetly are a gay couple living in Moscow.
“It's become a lot harder to hold public events, and fewer people come to them because they are worried about possible arrests," says Komov. “On the other hand, it may have played a positive role, given a push.”
He continues, “It's forced a lot of people in LGBT community to get out and do something. It's created a type of name for the LGBT community in Russia because it's activated a fight and initiative from the community.”
"We're openly gay,” says Komov. "We're not hiding in fear,” says Svetly. "It's our defense mechanism,” adds Komov. "For us, being open is a weapon,” concludes Svetly.
Mark Grinberg (pseudonym) contributed to this report.