Just a few months ago Sasha Semanova and her fellow activists thought they had turned the corner in their fight for gay rights in Russia, but now they are facing an avalanche of proposed laws that they believe would give authorities legal backing to persecute them for their sexual orientation.
“We had a feeling that everything was changing and that we are changing the society,” she told ABC News by phone from St. Petersburg, where she is part of one of Russia’s most active lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
“Everything has changed,” she said.
Earlier this year St. Petersburg passed what has been called a “gay gag rule” law, prohibiting homosexual “propaganda” around minors. Violators could face fines up to $16,700. Supporters say it is meant to protect children and defend what they call traditional Russian values.
Semanova and other opponents see it as an excuse to harass the entire community.
She and her friends collected thousands of signatures protesting the proposed law last year, which they believe was proposed by local members of President-elect Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in order to shore up conservative votes ahead of a contentious parliamentary election. Despite their efforts, the measure was signed into law in March.
“It’s very worrying because all the work that the LGBT activists are doing can be subject to this law and everything we do is risky. Most of our activities are restricted already and we don’t know what the future has in store,” Semanova said.
St. Petersburg is home to Russia’s most vibrant LGBT community, a rare thing in a country where homophobia remains prevalent. Homosexuality was outlawed during the Soviet Union and was only decriminalized by President Boris Yeltsin in 1993, though it remains highly taboo today.
St. Petersburg was not the first region in Russia to pass such a law, others did so as early as 2008, but it opened the floodgates as other major regions, including Moscow and Siberia, have taken steps to approve similar measures. The State Duma, Russia’s parliament, is considering a similar law that would enforce it on a national level. Semanova says she believes the national law will pass there as well.
The St. Petersburg law also prompted calls on pop superstar Madonna from the LGBT community to cancel her August concert there. The singer said she will go ahead with the concert, but will denounce the law from the stage. The lawmaker who proposed the legislation responded saying he wants to fine her under the new law if she does so.
Despite the international support for her cause, Semanova says she feels momentum building against them.
Already the new law has had a chilling effect in St. Petersburg. According to Semanova, cultural venues and galleries that were contracted to host events for the community have pulled out for fear of being punished under the law. Billboard companies have refused their business because it could be seen as homosexual propaganda.
“You can just feel that people are afraid and it’s really hard to do anything,” she said. “Nobody really wants to get fined so people just choose not to have anything to do with this LGBT issue.”
This week the first fines under the new law were handed down, including one to Sergay Kondrashov, a straight man who held up a sign in support of a lesbian friend. The judge eventually found him guilty of disobeying police orders to put the sign down, but not of promoting homosexual propaganda. He was quick to point out the discrepancy.
“I was found guilty of disobeying a police request to stop the offense, but not in the offense itself. It’s funny,” he told ABC News.
“I’m not a part of the gay community. But I provide an independent struggle against this immoral and unconstitutional law,” he said.
He admits he’s worried about the anti-gay trend sweeping Russia, but is hopeful he and his friends will defeat the laws eventually. He says he plans to break the law again on May 1.
The most worried, however, are homosexual couples with children. Semanova says they fear the new law could be used to justify taking their kids could be taken away from them. Some have even contemplated leaving the country.
As for Semanova, she says she is staying put in St. Petersburg despite the new difficulties.
“I see my mission is to change the attitudes in the society and to change the country. I am not going to leave because there will always be LGBT people who stay and live here and try to raise their kids here and find a job here. So I think my place is here in Russia,” she said.