For the first time, police in St. Petersburg, Russia, have made arrests on the strength of a new law banning the dissemination of information on homo-, bi- and transsexuality. Two men were arrested in the city center on Thursday after holding up a sign reading "Homosexuality Is Normal," according to the newswire Interfax.
Russia's second-largest city passed the controversial law on Feb. 29. The two men now face a possible maximum fine of 500,000 rubles (€12,800/$17,000). The maximum penalty is more than the average annual income in Russia.
The law bans films, music videos, books and newspapers that contain homosexual content as well as the rainbow flag, which is a common symbol of gay pride. And the ban may soon no longer be limited to just St. Petersburg and other cities in Russia. At the end of March, Vladimir Putin's United Russia party introduced a bill in the country's parliament, the Duma, which would impose the ban at the national level.
"We are trying to protect our society from homosexual propaganda," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Russian radio three weeks ago.
'Path to the Dark Ages'
German Green Party parliamentarian Volker Beck -- who, like German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, is openly gay -- said the bill is a "hate law" and that Russia is on the "path to the Dark Ages." In the past, Beck has attended anti-homophobia rallies in Russia.
Homophobia remains widespread in Russia, and it is an open secret in the country that many public figures have sought to hide their sexual preferences by entering into marriages of convenience. The Russian Orthodox Church views homosexuality as a sin, and it was only in 1999 that homosexuality was stricken from the list of mental illnesses in the country.
Vitaly Milonov, the United Russia politician who is one of the initiators of the proposal for a nationwide ban in the Duma, accused the German band Rammstein of "gay propaganda" earlier this spring. He also warned the American singer Madonna against transgressing the law at a planned summer concert. Madonna, for her part, has said she plans on defying it.