The authors of a Russian law banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors has drawn a good deal of criticism from gay rights groups worldwide. But they face their biggest challenge this summer. A few weeks from now Madonna is scheduled to play the Sports Complex stage in St. Petersburg, the city where the law was enacted.
Madonna has hinted strongly she will speak out in protest, if not flaunt the law itself. Russia’s already tattered civil-rights reputation could hardly be helped by castigation from the top-selling female recording artist of all time.
The city’s legislators have expressed concerns about the possibility of Madonna—who famously kissed Britney Spears on national television in 2003—of getting undressed, or worse, saying something in defense of Russian gay rights before an audience of possible minors. Disrobing, depending on how it is done, apparently might be construed as a promotion of gay sex.
The author of the law banning the dissemination of information on homo-, bi- and transsexuality, Vitaly Milonov, has not decided whether he will personally attend the concert to see if Madonna breaks it. “I heard at the concerts on this tour she pulled off her tights, and we will not have that here,” Milonov told the Russian news agency Interfax. “We warn the organizers of the concert so that everything goes well. Otherwise they will face the harsh laws of St. Petersburg.”
Soon after the bill was signed into law by St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, a former KGB agent and ally of Putin, a group of friends, writers, photographers, designers, and architects sat down to discuss its consequence over drinks at Zavtra, a restaurant in downtown Moscow.
To them it was obvious that the bill demonstrated three faces “of corruption, of censorship, and of state fascism,” as the journalist and gay activist Masha Gessen, one of the group, said. It obliges abusers to pay $170 fines, and authorizes brief detentions. Disturbingly, in a country where homosexuality was a criminal offense in the Soviet era, it could well allow some of that mentality back into police work. The law, depending on how it is interpreted, could allow police to grab more or less anyone who said or showed “gay propaganda” to young people. That could be interpreted to include holding hands while walking in public.
After Saint Petersburg, the law was adopted by five more Russian regions and threatened to become federal law, which made some gays think of emigrating from the country to more civilized places. “The text of the law says that there is no equality and it talks of propaganda, though that term has no legal definition in Russia,” Gessen said. It could even reach inside a home, she fears. “The police would be able to arrest and keep me in jail for three hours just because I do not tell my son that our non-gay neighbor is better than us.”
To call international attention to the law, Gessen wrote an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune imploring potential tourists not to visit St. Petersburg. “I am especially asking you not to go if you are the singer Madonna, who is scheduled to play a concert there on 9 August,” Gessen wrote. She also asked Mercedes-Benz and PepsiCo to cancel their partnership at the St. Petersburg international forum that took place last month, but neither of the two companies acquiesced.
As for Madonna, celebrated by world’s gay community as an icon, the American star responded the following day on Facebook: “I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity,” Madonna wrote. “I don’t run away from adversity,” she added, calling herself a “freedom fighter.” Both Madonna and, recently, her 15-year-old daughter Lourdes Leon advocate for the legalization of gay marriage in United States.
Nobody in Russia doubts that Madonna will perform in St. Petersburg next month. But some worry that the words she says on stage could spur persecutions against the gay minority in the city after she leaves. Over 20 gay activists have been fined and detained by police since the new law has taken force.
“The law gives a signal to all sorts of aggressive groups that we are outlaws and anybody can attack us,” said Igor Kochetkov, the leader of a St. Petersburg LGBT rights group, describing the day last May when he and dozens of other gay activists were attacked by Russian nationalists and shot at with BB guns. “This law should not be seen as just an anti-gay move; it comes in a series of recent laws allowing persecutions of opposition activists and NGOs – any different voice is punished in today’s Russia.”