When 26-year-old Anastasia Smirnova (pictured below) walked up the stage in Amsterdam yesterday, she faced thousands of applauding supporters holding gay pride flags and anti-Putin signs. “Today we are making history,” she said.
As Smirnova spoke, Russian president Vladimir Putin was being welcomed by Queen Beatrix and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on a visit to a country that has long been at the forefront of LGBT equality.
On Monday evening, an estimated 3,000 pro-gay rights demonstrators gathered in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam specifically to protest Putin's visit. Dressed in rainbow colors, the men, women, and children showed their disgust for the new anti-gay law that has been promulgated by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church in a country already mired in intolerance for the LGBT community. The law, which will have a second reading this June and is expected to be passed, is called the “Propaganda Law” and bans the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality, including displays of the rainbow flag so proudly burnished all over Amsterdam.
“[Russian conservatives] want to ban gay propaganda because they assume that it could turn kids gay,” Tanja Ineke, the president of the Dutch LGBT rights group COC, said during an interview for Out. “Well, it should be common knowledge that that is not the case. This problem concerns the violation of human rights and we have a global obligation to support activists who are fighting for their rights in other countries.”
Boris Dittrich, the LGBT advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, also sees Russia's so-called “Propoganda Law” as an abhorrent infringement on human rights. "There is a lot of homophobia in Russia, where homosexuality is often linked to pedophilia and people don't have access to enough information about homosexuality to counter negative developments," he said.
Anti-gay sentiments have been on the rise in Russia. A recent poll held by the non-governmental Russian Levada Opinion Center suggests that 85% of Russians strongly opposes same-sex marriage. Nearly a third of the respondents believe homosexuality is the result of a sickness or a psychological trauma.
For Smirnova, one of the speakers at the Amsterdam demonstration from St. Petersburg, it would be no surprise to return home to find photos of herself online alongside a “pedophile meter.” As one of the project managers of the Russian LGBT Network, she is all-too-aware that many people within her organization deal with violence and discrimination daily. Her friend and colleague, Maria Kozlovskaya, 28, was asked to resign from her law firm after her boss discovered she was part of the Russian LGBT Network.
Smirnova believes that the reason the Kremlin has gone after LGBT rights is because of Putin's flailing popular support. By turning gays into an internal enemy, the Kremlin can shift public attention from more pressing economic and social issues.
Although she disagrees with the Propaganda Law, Smirnova does believe it helps to put LGBT issues on the agenda. "Before all those local laws on homosexual propaganda came into place on a regional level, the LGBT community and LGBT issues were totally invisible," she said. "In a way, this is a step forward. The government and all the other stakeholders and the media, and through them, the whole society now notices that LGBTs exist in Russia."