'Russia's anti-gay law could ban holding hands in public'

In a bid to defend what they say are traditional values, lawmakers in Russia will consider the country's most aggressive anti-gay legislation in recent memory this week: a ban on public displays of affection among gays that could punish couples for kissing or even holding hands on the street with a fine or a two-week jail sentence.

The bill, which is slated for discussion in Russia's parliament on Friday, would be the latest salvo against  "non traditional sexual relations," which President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials have singled out as a corrupting influence on Russian morals and a symbol of the West's permissiveness.

In 2013, Russia passed a controversial law that banned "gay propaganda," public speech or demonstrations equating gay lifestyles to straight ones, saying it may influence children. The new legislation goes further, allowing a fine of up to 5,000 rubles, or $65, for the "public expression of non traditional sexual relations, resulting in the public demonstration of one's own distorted sexual preferences in public places." If the act takes place in a school or other place where children congregate, the punishment may include 15 days in jail.

Like its predecessor, the draft law is vague and does not explicitly state what acts are forbidden. But Ivan Nikitchuk, a member of the Communist Party and one of the bill's sponsors in the State Duma, has some ideas.

"So what is supposed to happen?" Daniil Turovsky, a journalist for the Russian-language news site Meduza, asked Nikitchuk in an interview  in a recent interview. "People are walking down the street, holding hands or kissing. The police walk up and detain them?"

"Naturally," Nikitchuk replied. "That is exactly what is supposed to happen."

The introduction of the bill does not necessarily mean that it will become law. Russian political tabloids regularly publish controversial draft laws that are later shelved. And even though the legislation is now on the parliament's schedule for debate, the Duma's legal committee gave the bill a lukewarm reception, calling it ambiguous and saying it was unclear how it would be enforced.

But legislation can pass through the Duma in just a matter of days if it has the necessary political support. The Kremlin has not commented on the draft law.

Like the 2013 bill banning "gay propaganda," the new legislation has generated criticism. Tanya Cooper, a Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote that the ban on public expression of non-traditional sexuality could "further escalate the rabid homophobia and transphobia in Russia, putting LGBT Russians at further risk of violence and discrimination."

Russian politicians, including Putin, defended the 2013 legislation by maintaining that it was meant to protect children and didn't infringe on individual rights. Russia's Constitutional Court, the equivalent to the US Supreme Court, upheld the law in a 2014 decision.

Nikitchuk made a similar argument defending the new legislation.

"This bill does not forbid doing 'that'," he said in the interview. "Let them do whatever they want under the covers."

"But we are stopping them from exhibiting their demonic desires, which the West would force on us..." he continued.”Excuse me, this is Russia. We have a country where tradition has always been respected, where people have had and continue to have a conscience, an understanding of shame. And all these kissing bearded men do not evoke anything besides vomit."

He also clarified that the public spaces referred to in the bill would include "anywhere, where you're not alone: the street, the metro, and so forth."

Russia took steps to decriminalise homosexuality after the fall of the Soviet Union, abolishing a law against sodomy and removing being gay from a list of mental disorders. At the same time, public polling by the independent Levada Centre has shown that since 1999, increasing numbers of Russians see homosexuality as detrimental or even dangerous to society.

In terms of practice, the 2013 law against "gay propaganda" has been applied in a handful of cases, with targets including picketers holding signs saying "Gays aren't made, they're born" and the founder of an online support group called "Children-404," similar to the "It Gets Better" campaign.

Putin last year deflected criticism of the "gay propaganda" law, saying in an interview on "60 Minutes" that "the problem of sexual minorities in Russia had been deliberately exaggerated from the outside for political reasons."

"We have no persecution at all," he continued. "People of non traditional sexual orientation work, they live in peace, they get promoted, they get state awards for their achievements in science and arts or other areas. I personally have awarded them medals."

But they should not be allowed to influence children, he said.

"I believe we should leave kids in peace," he added.

*Andrew Roth writes for the Washington Post.com.