MOSCOW – After passage of a law banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors last summer, the Russian government's anti-gay campaign appears to be on hiatus during the Olympic Games. But many gay activists and human rights groups fear it will return with a vengeance once the foreign athletes, journalists and dignitaries have gone home.
The government takes little interest in the gay scene itself, as long at it keeps a low profile. But when gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people organize into an independent movement demanding rights, the state moves to stifle it. The danger, activists say, comes when laws like the one banning gay propaganda seem to send a signal that attacks on gays are acceptable.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1991. Hand-holding by same-sex couples is not an uncommon sight. Police have tried to protect gays from hooligans bent on violence, though that protection has not been consistent or reliable.
Russia has officially recognized the LGBT Sport Federation, which plans to hold the LGBT Open Games from Feb. 26 to March 2 to draw attention to human rights issues and to present a positive image of gays to Russians.
But amid a semblance of tolerance, gay activists can quickly run afoul of the government, particularly if their activities take on a political coloration. Gay pride parades, for instance, have never been authorized in Russian cities -- and the new law gives authorities leverage to forbid them outright.
DOES LAW TARGET GAY TEENS?
Amid increasingly anti-gay rhetoric from lawmakers and public figures, the Duma passed a law in June 2013 prohibiting the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors."
Violators so far face only fines, but the law is being used to cow reporters into forgoing favorable articles about gays and to block public activity such as a gay pride march.
In the Ural mountain town of Nizny Tagil, journalist and LGBT activist Yelena Klimova has twice been called in by police and faces a possible $3,000 fine over her project, Children-404, which seeks to help LGBT teens who are facing pressure from their peers and parents over coming out.
"A lot of teenagers said they would hear their parents watching the news and getting angry about gays, saying they all need to be killed," Klimova says. "And those teenagers start wondering what would happen to them if their parents found out they were gay. They were in a lot of pain. 'What -- would they want to kill me too?' they would say."
The law is emboldening local authorities to target homosexuals.
• The family of a 14-year-old girl from the western Russia Bryansk region was notified that she had "systematically propagandized non-traditional sexual relations among minors by admitting openly that she is of non-traditional sexual orientation" and would be placed under watch. The move drew criticism from higher authorities because the girl was a minor, and the action was dropped.
• Prosecutors in the Ulyanovsk region are checking whether a children's book about diversity is breaking the law against promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors.
ANTI-GAY GROUPS EMBOLDENED
The signs are ominous, says Dmitry Svetly, a coordinator with the Rainbow Association, which organizes events and street protests to promote the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.
The new law has encouraged radical anti-gay groups, Svetly says.
"At one protest, this group came and surrounded us," he says. "Homophobic groups have grown larger in size, stronger, and they feel they have the support of the government."
In some cases, attackers have grabbed a gay man off the street and taken him to an apartment where they would beat him and curse him as a pedophile, then post a videotape of the incident online as further humiliation.
Tatyana Vinnichenko, a university teacher in Arkhangelsk who heads a local LGBT group, says a lesbian single mother in Arkhangelsk was shaken by a visit from child services after a neighbor complained to authorities about her sexual orientation.
GAMES HIGHLIGHT ISSUE
Such incidents would have gone largely unnoticed outside Russia without Western media attention during the lead-up to the Games.
The anti-propaganda law drew particular attention and stirred talk of a boycott by Western gay organizations and human right groups.
'That's when President Vladimir Putin reassured visitors that they would be warmly welcomed. He said the propaganda law was intended only to protect children from pedophiles, not to stop consenting acts between adults. "Just leave the kids in peace," Putin said.
Although a boycott failed to materialize, some Western countries made a point of registering their concerns publicly. President Obama, for example, pointedly named several prominent gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King and figure skating champion Brian Boitano, to the U.S. delegation to the Olympics.
But finessing the issue on the eve of the Games is one thing. What happens after the Olympics?
Andrei Zhuravlyov, a conservative lawmaker from the United Russia party, wants to reintroduce a bill that would strip gays of parental rights. The initial attempt failed in September.
Many Russian LGBT activists say such laws could have an easier time passing after the Olympics.
"Many of the young people I've talked to fear that once the Olympic Games are over and international attention for Russia decreases, things will get worse. A lot are really afraid," Klimova says.
Immigration Equality, a U.S.-based group that offers legal support for LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S., says it has opened 28 cases involving gay Russians in 2013, more than any previous year.
The group's legal director, Aaron Morris, says, "I think a lot of people were sort of thinking -- maybe hoping -- Russia would get better but made a decision that that wasn't going to happen and that it was time to find another solution."
Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer, uprooted her family and moved to New York in December out of concern that her children might be taken from her and her partner, a Russian citizen she married in 2004 in the United States.
Gessen, author of The Man without a Face, a book highly critical of Putin, says Putin sees homosexuality as a Western import that undermines traditional families.
She calls herself the "quintessential" example of Putin's worst nightmare: gay, Jewish and intellectual.
Putin's tough line on homosexuality, Gessen says, is a genuine personal reaction to liberal Western influence that he abhors.
GOVERNMENT EMPHASIZES 'MORALITY'
The law on homosexual propaganda is part of a clear government strategy to focus on morality, according to sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a former member of the United Russia party.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a period that was widely characterized as moral decay," she says. "The government wants to restore morals."
The government influences most of the Russian news media, which in turns shape how the public perceives gay issues.
Konstantin Yablotsky, co-president of the LGBT Sport Federation, says his group has found gay Russians becoming more cautious as pressure builds. He says the federation asks new members if they have come out publicly. The number who say no has risen from 45% in 2010 to 75% now.
In a June 2013 poll by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, 88% of respondents supported the law banning the promotion of non-traditional relations among minors.
The poll also found that 42% said homosexuality should be a punishable crime, an increase from 19% in 2007. The number of people who said the government should not be involved in the sexual orientation of citizens dropped from 34% in 2007 to 15% in 2013.
The Russian government's emphasis on morality has even won adherents among Western pro-family groups.
Austin Ruse, who travels to Russia frequently to help plan the World Congress of Families 2014, says he believes that Russian leaders are against gay activism-- rather than homosexuality itself -- because they see it as the genesis of an independent political movement.
"I think he (Putin) sees gay rights movement as one of the worst aspects of contemporary American culture," Ruse says.
Ruse, head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, supports the anti-propaganda law but expresses concern about violence against gays. He says he has met with Russian government officials to urge them to rein it in.
He says police arrest "hooligans" who beat up gays in public, "but I don't think they are doing it as aggressively as they should."
He acknowledges that the law is subject to misuse to ban free speech and political activism such as gay rallies.
"It's kind of walking a tightrope," Ruse says. "There is no human right to talk about your sexual orientation to schoolchildren. ... On the other hand, you have a human right in international treaties not to get beat up."
Ruse believes Putin is sincere in his views on morality, family values and religion.
Kryshtanovskaya, the sociologist, says government ideology is targeting homosexuality as an impediment to Russia's demographic survival.
"The issue of having more children has become a particularly critical one given the shrinking size of Russia's population," she says. "Everything that stands in the way (of having more children) is criticized by the government."
She says more laws targeting homosexuals could be passed after the Olympics, but the government would not take such a radical step as outlawing homosexuality outright.
What is critical, many gay activists say, is not what the government says, but what it does.
"The law itself is only about fines. It doesn't stipulate a criminal offense," says Vinnichenko, the LGBT group leader in Arkhangelsk. "But what's dangerous about it is that it sends a clear message that we as LGBT people don't have a right to state our identity."