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Anti-gay law shames Putin's Russia

By Tanya Lokshina, Special to CNN
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Fri September 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tanya Lokshina's friend told of being gay youth in Soviet town. Doctor told him to keep it quiet
  • But she says in modern Russia being gay did not mean being closeted until new law passed
  • Law bans promoting gay relationships; this flouts charter of Olympics, she says
  • Lokshina: Putin denies discrimination, but message to LGBT people is clear

Editor's note: Tanya Lokshina is Russia Program Director at Human Rights Watch.

Moscow (CNN) -- A friend of mine who grew up in a small Soviet town realized he was gay by age 15. He did not know the word but he could no longer deny that he was sexually attracted to boys, not girls. He had no idea what it meant and felt rather lost. So, he went to see a kind, elderly doctor and hesitantly asked the question. After a stretch of uncomfortable silence, the doctor said quietly, "Take a lot of vitamin C and hopefully it'll get better with time. ... But most importantly, don't ever mention this to anyone."

Homosexuality was a criminal offense under the Soviets, and the doctor was trying to protect his stammering teenage patient. When my friend told me this story many years later, we had a good laugh, agreeing that though things weren't easy for gay people in Russia, you did not have to stay shut in that closet for life. This was before disgraceful homophobic legislation was adopted in June.

Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina

The new law bans dissemination among minors of information promoting the "attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relationships" and providing a "distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships."

It does not define "nontraditional" but it is widely understood to mean "homosexual." And it basically means that you cannot publicly say anything positive about being gay or tell a child that there is nothing wrong with being gay or being raised by gay parents.

It seems that the Kremlin underestimated the prominence of the international LGBT rights movement and the damage the law would do to Russia's image, especially with the Sochi Olympics just months away, the host country being so much in the spotlight.

Russia's failure to honor the Olympic Charter's requirement of nondiscrimination came under scrutiny as the International Olympic Committee continued to seek assurances that enforcement of the law would not affect the games. Russian officials at the highest level have been trying to smooth over the scandal.

Ex-Olympian speaks out on boycott idea
Obama: 'Nobody is more offended than me'
How Russian anti-gay laws impact Olympics
Olympians jeer Russia's anti-gay law

President Vladamir Putin himself said in a recent interview that in Russia "people of nontraditional sexual orientation are not discriminated against" and that they are valued and equal citizens of the Russian Federation. Putin even noted that he was open to a discussion with LGBT organizations. That's welcome, but is he to be trusted?

As is often the case here, it's one step forward and two steps backward. So far no meeting with LGBT activists has been convened and there have been no efforts to have the heinous law repealed. Worse, several legislators have just introduced a bill to deny parental rights to one or both parents of "nontraditional sexual orientation."

The main author of the bill and a member of the ruling party's faction in the State Duma, Alexei Zhuravlev, explained that the bill aims to "protect" children from psychological trauma and pertains to those parents who "do not conceal their same-sex sexual relationships." The message sent to LGBT people is clear: If you don't want your kids taken away from you you'd better keep your mouth shut.

And it is particularly ironic that just days later in his much discussed New York Times op-ed on Syria, Vladimir Putin urged the Americans not to forget that "God created us all equal." People in Russia would've laughed if only things weren't getting bad enough to cry.

When questioned about the discriminatory legislation, Russian officials often chide critics for exaggerating -- this is not the Soviet Union, and gay people live in Russia freely. Indeed, you will not be thrown behind bars for being gay. But the advice given to my friend by that doctor some 40 years ago has become very relevant once again: "...don't you ever mention this to anyone!" In other words, if you want to have a life, don't you dare poke your nose out of that closet.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tanya Lokshina.

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