Madonna’s St. Petersburg Concert Reignites Criticism of Anti-Gay Law
Madonna has long stood by the side of the gay community. The Material Girl once again proved her gay bona fides when she said she would publicly condemn a local law making the propagation of "homosexual propaganda" when she played St. Petersburg, Russia. She made the announcement a few days before her twelfth studio album "MNDA" dropped, on March 23.
"I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed," the singer told Bloomberg Businessweek. "I don’t run away from adversity. I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity."
The controversial measure was approved by the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and was signed into law by the city’s governor, Georgiy Poltavchenko. It went into effect on March 30 and immediately had a chilling effect on the city’s LGBT citizens.
The law fines individuals up to $17,000 for "promoting homosexuality" and "pedophilia" among minors. Anyone who violates the law faces jail time.
The law defines "homosexual propaganda" as "the targeted and uncontrolled dissemination of generally accessible information capable of harming the health and moral and spiritual development of minors," that could create "a distorted impression" of "marital relations." Critics -- and there are many, within the gay community and elsewhere -- claim the law is purposefully vague; does not specifically define what is considered "propaganda"; and doesn’t explain how pedophilia is equivalent to homosexuality.
Russia’s second largest and most European-oriented city is the fourth district in Russia to pass such a "homosexual propaganda" law. Lawmakers from the districts of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk and Kostroma have also created similar measures.
Vague for a Reason
Dina Gusovsky, an international politics columnist and former Russia Today reporter, told EDGE that the law’s ambiguity benefits the government.
"The vagueness of it makes it all the easier for law enforcement to go after individuals they think have violated a law that has such a wide interpretation," she said.
The law does not explain what specific acts of homosexuality could get someone arrested or fined. Someone could violate the law by simply waving a rainbow flag or for participating in a LGBT rally. Gusovsky notes that over 70 people have been arrested under the law and one person has been charged with pedophilia while the rest were charged with spreading "gay propaganda."
Many of the people arrested and fined were activists and protesters. EDGEreported in May that 17 gay activists were arrested under the controversial law for participating in a May Day celebration.
Nikolai Alexeyev, a well-known gay rights activist in Russia, was also arrested under the law in May and told the Associated Press that a city court fined him 5,000 rubles ($170) for violating the measure. According to Yuri Gavrikov, the head of St. Petersburg’s LGBT group Equality, there were no children around where Alexeyev was protesting. Gavrikoy called the law vague as well.
Additionally, EDGE reported that a Russian straight man named Sergey Kondrashov was arrested under the law but became the first citizen to be cleared of "homosexual propaganda" charges. Kondrashov was put behind bars for holding up a gay rights banner in St. Petersburg that read, "A dear family friend is lesbian. My wife and I love and respect her...and her family is just as equal as ours."
St. Petersburg lawmakers who supported the measure claimed it would protect minors from pedophilia. But many question whether the welfare of children was really paramount in legislators’ minds.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told EDGE she believes there is something more sinister behind the measure.
"I think it’s the government setting boundaries for LGBT people. They want to silence organizations so they back off equal rights and pride parades," she said. "The law’s rhetoric is protecting children." Denber also said it is possible the law would have been passed even if without the supposed goal of protecting minors.
’Protecting Children’ As an Anti-Gay Weapon
"I’m sorry to say this," Denber said, "but instead of authorities leading citizens towards tolerant attitudes and to a greater openness for LGBT people, they are trying to bait people with what could be someone’s prejudices."
Lawmakers emphasized pedophilia because the topic of homosexuality is still taboo in Russia, Gusovsky added. "They don’t want to create a perception that this is normal," she told EDGE. "They think it’s a lifestyle that goes against nature and they do not want young people to be attracted to it."
Vitaly Milonov, the law’s principal drafter and an outspoken supporter of Russia’s Orthodox Church, has called gay people "perverts" and has accused gay rights activists of launching a campaign to convert Russia’s children. "This is a declaration of Russia’s moral sovereignty," Milonov said in a quote as reported in the New York Times.
On the other side, the head of the Russian L.G.B.T. Network, Igor Kochetkov, called the law "absurd. You can also adopt a law against turning off the light of the sun, but no one has the ability to do this," Kochetkov told the Times. "Even if someone wanted to, no amount of propaganda is going to turn a heterosexual gay. This is a law that can be used, and will be used, to conduct searches of organizations and prevent public actions."
’Sliding Towards a New Totalitarianism’
Activists in ComingOut, the leading St. Petersburg LGBT rights group, warned that "this law would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians in Russia. The history of Europe shows that all totalitarian regimes here began with similar repression of LGBT people."
The law, he ominously added, "could signal that Russia is sliding towards a new totalitarianism."
Since the fall of the old Soviet Union, Russia has passed several laws that are a step backward, Gusovsky added.
"The law does not just limit LGBT people but really all those who support the community," she said. "There was someone holding up a sign that said his family friend is a lesbian and that they treat her the same and that she is equal to them. Under the law, that would not be considered acceptable, either."
The real goal is to "put people back into the closet," according to Denber. "That to me is the message that these initiatives are implementing," she said.
Urging a Boycott of St. Petersburg
In order to have the law repealed, some gay rights groups and activists, including All Out, have urged people to avoid traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia’s most popular tourist destination.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Masha Gessen asked for tourists to cancel any vacation plans to the city. Gessen called for major businesses to pull out of any deals they have with the metropolis and for Madonna to cancel her concert.
For her part, Denber is hopeful that ordinary Russians will try to get the measure repealed. "People are pressing the limits," she said.
People will fight back. They are pushing boundaries and challenging authorities on ridiculous laws, many people are upset."
Not so fast, Gusovsky countered.
"I don’t see it happening anytime soon, if at all," she said. "In fact I see other cities adopting the measure. Repeal would be very difficult and could probably only come about with a change in leadership."
When the day came, Madonna stayed true to her word and spoke out against the anti-gay measure at her St. Petersburg concert. She announced on her Facebook page the day before that she would be handing out pink wristbands at the event to "to anyone that wants to support the LGBT community." She added, "The wristband will be part of the show -- be prepared to raise your arm in support!"
U.S. officials issued a warning for fans attending the show to "remain vigilant" in response to threats of violence: "This is to alert U.S. citizens in Russia who are planning to attend the Madonna concerts in Moscow on Tuesday, August 7, or in St. Petersburg on Thursday, August 9, that the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg has received information regarding a threat of physical violence against spectators and performers at the St. Petersburg concert on August 9."
For their part, Denber and Gusovsky did not believe the Russian government would risk looking ridiculous in the world’s eyes by arresting Madonna.
"It would be quite a messy spectacle," Denber said.
"Madonna is an American citizen so it’s a little different. Plus, she is a major public figure," Gusovsky said. "The last thing officials need is negative attention, especially as they try to paint this bill in a positive light and frame it as protecting minors."
Since the event took place at an indoor space, it is very different from holding signs on the streets of St. Petersburg. "Either way," Gusovsky concluded, " this law applies to Russian citizens so Madonna should not face any punishment."
Nor did she.
At the concert, the singer walked out on stage with the words "No Fear" written on her back and urged the audience to "show your love and appreciation to the gay community," Reuters reported. "We want to fight for the right to be free," she told concertgoers. "Do we live in fear?" the singer asked her audience.
"No! We love you!" audience members yelled back.
Watch a clip of the St. Petersburg concert below: