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Support has come from afar. A group of gay and lesbian activists hold a banner of the rainbow flag, the Olympic rings and the words 'To Russia with love' as they stage a Valentine's Day kissing protest in Beijing on 14 February.Nearly every day here at the Winter Games, some official or another guarantees that gay people will encounter no discrimination. The Olympic charter prohibits it, they say, and even if it didn't, the Russian constitution does. The evidence, activists argue, suggests otherwise.

The Games have conferred a kind of immunity for sexual minorities within the well-defended boundaries of the Olympic grounds. Exceptions have been rare: On 16 February, when Vladimir Luxuria, an Italian transgender activist, entered the hockey arena in a towering rainbow-colored headdress, police escorted her out, put her in a car and drove her away as an Associated Press photographer took pictures. Luxuria said she had been detained Sunday when she showed a "Gay is Okay" banner at the Olympic Park, but police denied that.

Across Russia, however, gays say they are more vulnerable than ever, feeling the wrath of a repressive new law. It's getting worse, they say, despite the attention the Olympics has brought.

Last summer, Lena Klimova, a young lesbian living in a steel town about 850 miles east of Moscow, started a social media page for gay teenagers, some of the most vulnerable victims of homophobia. Now police say the page, where teenagers discuss rejection and loneliness, violates the law prohibiting the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors."

If Klimova, 25, is found guilty of the accusation, she will face a fine of up to 2,800 dollars — ruinous, given her small earnings.

For 18 years, Alexander Yermoshkin taught geography in the Far East city of Khabarovsk without his sexuality becoming an issue. Last fall, he was dismissed. President Vladimir Putin had signed the "propaganda" law in June, and a group of citizens complained that because Yermoshkin is gay, he might convince children that "nontraditional sexual relations are normal."

The repercussions didn't stop there. At the end of January, a Khabarovsk newspaper editor was convicted of violating the law because he ran an article about the dismissal that quoted Yermoshkin saying, "My very existence is proof that being gay is normal." The editor, Alexander Suturin, was fined nearly 1,500 dollars.

As the Olympic opening ceremony was getting underway in Sochi this month, Anastasia Smirnova and three friends set off to hang a banner on a St. Petersburg bridge saying "Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement. — Principle 6. The Olympic Charter."

The banner was not specific to gays, but Smirnova is an activist in the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community. When members of the group stopped momentarily to photograph themselves and the banner — well before they reached their destination — a bus and three cars packed with armed riot police swooped down on them, Smirnova wrote on Facebook. They were questioned for four hours, repeatedly asked about LGBT affiliations and charged with organising an unauthorised public assembly, Smirnova said. Now they face fines of up to 875 dollars.

"It was a police state at its best," she wrote, pointing out that the authorities seemed to know their plans.

In Moscow that evening, at least 10 people who tried to wave rainbow flags on Red Square were quickly detained. Some reported being beaten.

Officials decline to comment on individual cases, but they follow the lead of Putin, who in public seems to equate homosexuality with pedophilia and appears to suggest that homosexual behavior is taught, contradicting what scientists say is evidence that it results from developmental differences. Last month, in a visit to Sochi, Putin said gays had nothing to fear at the Games.

"Just leave kids alone, please," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, assigned to supervise the Olympic project for the government, said the same.

"Please do not touch the kids; that is the only thing," he said. "That is prohibited by law in all countries no matter whether you are straight or gay."

Klimova, speaking by telephone, sighed.

"We pretend to be tolerant," she said, "but we are not at all."

Klimova lives in Nizhny Tagil, a steel town in the Urals beset by more than the usual despair. The unemployment rate is high, and poverty is widespread. After she wrote an online article criticising the propaganda law and its assumption of perversion, she began hearing from gay teenagers nationwide who described rejection and misery.

The social media page helped them share their experiences with other teenagers, Klimova said. But in January, Vitaly Milonov, a conservative city councilman in faraway St. Petersburg, demanded an investigation, complaining that Klimova was luring teenagers into homosexuality with the page.

"Without such groups," he told the Ria Novosti news agency, "no kids like that would exist."

Klimova expects to be in court within 30 days, accused of promoting nontraditional sexual relations among minors. The assertion is ridiculous, she said.

"For Milonov," she said, "these kids do not exist. This is a law used to shut up teenagers trying to tell each other their stories. The authorities say they are protecting children. It's a total lie."

Only the other day, Klimova said, she had heard from a 16-year-old girl in the small city of Bryansk, 235 miles southwest of Moscow. Juvenile authorities accused her of violating the propaganda law. Her offense? She was openly gay.

The girl had met with gay activists in St. Petersburg, where a local vigilante tracked her down. He told her school principal in Bryansk that a minor who acknowledged being gay was clearly breaking the law.

"I hope after this example no one will have any illusions about protecting children," Klimova said, "because children are the ones who are suffering."

Olympic officials repeatedly say that their charter prohibits discrimination. "We have assurances from the Russian government and the president of the Russian Federation that the Olympic Charter will apply during the Olympic Games," Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said recently.

But Ivan Simochkin, a leader of Heterosexuals Supporting LGBT Rights in Moscow, said there are no such guarantees in Russia. Just look at Khabarovsk, he said.

"This means gays are banned from saying who they are," Simochkin said. "The law has made homophobia state policy."

The Soviet Union made homosexuality illegal, but Russia repealed the law in 1993. After that, gay people generally lived in peace, although few dared to declare their orientation publicly. Now they think the authorities have declared open season on them.

There have been no signs of protest in Sochi regarding the gay law or anything else. Putin said demonstrations would be allowed in a park about seven miles from the closest Olympic venue, but civic activists said that requests for the required permits have been turned down.

Konstantin Yablotskiy, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation in Moscow, had hoped activists would be able to sponsor a "pride house" in Sochi for gay visitors. The Vancouver Winter Olympics had one. "Registration was denied here," he said.

"No, nothing has changed because of the Olympics," he said. "What will happen after the Olympics, we'll see. People are very frightened. Many LGBT people think the situation will be worse after the Olympics. There is a panic in the community, especially among those who are partly or almost out, those who are active."

Their fate, he said, now lies with the larger world.

"Don't stop paying attention to us after the Olympics," he said. "What happens depends on you."


Kathy Lally – The Washington Post
Image:  Str / AFP / Lehtikuva