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St. Petersburg's 'gay propaganda' law has LGBT Russians wary

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Critics say authorities apply the law arbitrarily, often as a handy pretext to clear the streets of demonstrators. Polina Savchenko, from the organization Coming Out St. Petersburg, says, "The police arrest people citing the new law, but once you're in custody they drop those charges for others, such as disorderly conduct."

A chilly environment

The law's wording is unclear regarding what it actually bars, leaving the city's LGBT community to walk on eggshells. The Queer Fest event itself, for example – where portraits of lesbians lined the hall's grand staircase and community advocates spoke freely – was limited to an 18-plus crowd by organizers for fear that it might be classified as propaganda.

Several attendees also noted that they were unsure what the law actually entailed – though they were afraid of persecution even before it was introduced.

"I don't show my love for my boyfriend openly," said Alexander Petrov, a volunteer at the event, adding, "but I wouldn't have done that before either." Still, later Mr. Petrov later sought out a photojournalist and asked not to have his picture published in Russia.

Attendee Janet Yurieva, sporting a shaved head and a slight figure, made a similar point. "Because I don't look like a normal girl, I'm afraid to go out on the street," she said. "I don't dare to kiss my girlfriend outside. Maybe somewhere no one can see us."

She said she had long experienced homophobia, even at home. "I told my mom I was lesbian a few months ago. She started crying and blamed everything on my dad for leaving us when I was young."

But Ms. Savchenko, who flitted in and out of the grand exhibition hall, greeting friends and colleagues and moving proceedings along, said she saw an upside to the law. "I actually believe the law has done more good than bad,” she said. “Why? Because it has mobilized the LGBT community in our city. Before, no one would fight for their rights. People were OK with keeping their sexual orientation a secret. But now they're angry and ready to defend themselves."

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