KIEV, Ukraine -- If a group of Ukrainian lawmakers succeeds in its mission, TV shows and movies sympathetically portraying homosexuals such as "Brokeback Mountain" will be banned. So will gay pride parades.
The recently introduced bill, supported by the president's representative in parliament, would impose prison terms of up to five years and unspecified fines for spreading "propaganda of homosexuality" – defined as positive public depiction of gays in public.
It has sparked an outcry from rights organizations in Ukraine and beyond, who condemn the bill as a throwback to Soviet times when homosexuality was a criminal offense. They also warn that harassing the gay community could lead to a spike in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine, one of Europe's most severe, by driving gays further underground.
Although homosexuality was decriminalized in Ukraine and neighboring Russia after the fall of communism, animosity toward gays remains high across the former Soviet sphere. St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city and regarded as one of the country's most sophisticated, this year passed a law mandating fines of up to $33,000 for promoting homosexuality among minors. A gay pride parade in the Georgian capital ended in a scuffle with opponents in March.
The Ukrainian bill comes in the wake of organizers' decision to cancel the country's first gay-pride parade in May, which they made after hearing that hundreds of potentially violent opponents of gay rights had come to the capital.
Two Ukrainian gay rights activists have been brutally attacked in recent months.
The hostility toward homosexuals raises concern wider questions about tolerance in Ukraine and whether the country is truly capable of embracing Western values as strives to join the European Union. In the run-up to last month's European football championship, co-host Ukraine was rocked by allegations of racism, as fans at one stadium performed monkey chants directed at black players.
Pavlo Ungurian, one of the six lawmakers from various parties who authored the bill, told reporters Monday that growing acceptance of gay rights in the West is "not evolution, but degradation" and needed to be fought.
"Our goal is the preservation of the moral, spiritual and physical health of the nation," Ungurian said. "We must stop the propaganda, the positive description and the publicity ... of this abnormal lifestyle."
Ruslan Kukharchuk, who heads the group "Love Against Homosexuality" and campaigns in support of the bill, said the legislation would make TV dating shows involving same-sex couples and movies like "Brokeback Mountain," which explores the romantic relationship of two cowboys in the United States, illegal. Gay pride events and parades would also be banned.
Kukharchuk charged that homosexuality is an illness and that people must be treated for it. In 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the international classification of illnesses.
"We believe that homosexuality is a disease, it is a psychological disorder of a person and without a doubt there must be institutions, perhaps even financed by the government, to help such people get rehabilitation therapy," Kukharchuk said.
No date has been set for a vote on the bill in parliament, but Kukharchuk hopes it will be considered in September before a parliamentary election in October.
President Viktor Yanukovych has remained mum about the initiative, but the fact that his parliamentary representative Yuri Meroshnichenko supports the bill is an indication that Yanukovych may back it as well. It was unclear how much support the bill enjoys among lawmakers.
Anastasia Zhivkova, a gay rights activist, called the bill "a throwback to the Middle Ages" that would even further clamp down on Ukraine's gays and lesbians, most of whom already hide their lifestyle because of a severe public stigma. For every one gay Ukrainian who is out, another 80 are forced to conceal their sexuality, according to gay groups.
The United Nations Development Program said in a statement that the bill amounts to "state-supported discrimination against" gay, lesbian and transgender groups and could fuel the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine, by preventing them from getting proper information on preventing and living with sexually transmitted diseases.
Zhivkova said gays are forced to hide their relationships not only from their work colleagues, but also from their relatives, often cutting vacation photos in two, to avoid showing who accompanied them.
"A great part of our life remains in the shadows," Zhivkova said. "All the time you balance between being an outcast or a criminal."