All was quiet in front of the Russian mission to the U.N. in midtown Manhattan Feb. 28 -- that is, except for the soaring chords of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake emanating from a small boom box, providing a melodramatic soundtrack for the two dozen demonstrators wearing gags over their mouths and hoisting signs that read, "Censor Gay? No Way! Saint Petersburg: Don't Go There."
Hundreds hit the streets in a global day of action, from New York to Paris, Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, Milan to Buenos Aires and other cities around the world, calling out a draconian censorship law that would impose stiff fines for anything construed as "the promotion of homosexuality" in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.
After months of controversy, including a public hearing during which gays were described as "subhuman," the bill was passed by the Saint Petersburg city council Feb. 29. Now the only thing that stands between it becoming law is the governor's signature. My colleagues and I at All Out, a community of almost a million people around the world fighting for full equality, made a video to send the governor a message:
Besides criminalizing reading, writing, speaking, or reporting anything related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people, this ban on "promotion" would also target Pride parades, literature, theater, and NGOs that openly serve LGBT people. Writing a blog post about the fact that Tchaikovsky, the iconic Russian composer, slept with men would become a crime under this law.
The goal of this bill is pretty straightforward; it's part of a pattern of conservative blowback around the world against increased visibility of LGBT people. In Russia, in the face of a nascent LGBT rights movement, conservatives want to nip it in the bud by criminalizing LGBT people, pushing them underground, and making them invisible.
This kind of anti-gay blowback is homegrown, but it's also been given a push by a number of high-profile American conservatives, including notorious firebrand Scott Lively, known for both his close relationship with the authors of the "Kill the Gays" bill in Uganda and his book blaming the Holocaust on a gay conspiracy. Lively, who travels regularly to Russia, first publicized his strategy in his melodramatic "Letter to the Russian People" a few years ago:
The purpose of my visit was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement which has done much damage to my country and which has now taken root in Russia. This is a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it ... The homosexual movement tries to win public sympathy by claiming that homosexuals are "born that way" and cannot change. This is not true.
Lively and conservatives in Russia got their way Feb. 29, when the parliament passed a final vote on the bill. But there's still time to stop it. The governor of Saint Petersburg has two weeks to sign, or veto, the bill.
"This law will install a culture of censorship in what was once Russia's most cosmopolitan city and is a huge blow to the freedom of expression in Russia," says our friend Polina Savchenko, director of Coming Out, an LGBT organization based in Saint Petersburg. "At a time when people all over the world are opening up and coming out, this law puts Russia back in the closet."
We've been working closely with Polina and others in Russia to beat back this backwards law. We know it's an uphill battle: lawmakers in Saint Petersburg have ignored calls from world leaders, and even the country's own international treaty obligations respecting freedom of expression, in their zeal to protect Russia from "homosexual promotion."
But we're also wagering that despite all the grandstanding, decision makers in Russia are not immune to global public opinion. The government recently announced that it wants to spend $11 billion in five years to attract international tourists to Russia, and Saint Petersburg thrives on its reputation as Russia's cosmopolitan "window to the West" to attract visitors from around the world.
Hundreds of thousands around the world have spoken out in solidarity with brave LGBT groups in Russia in saying that this liberal reputation can't coexist with a new law that will muzzle artists, writers, musicians, and regular citizens who live in -- or simply visit -- the city.
Extremists work globally. But so do we.
Check out more photos from AllOut.org's Global Day of Action here.
Follow Joseph Huff-Hannon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoeHuffHannon