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St Petersburg holds gay culture festival despite ban

Russian campaigners want fourth Queer Fest to be ‘twice as big’ in face of law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’
The opening of the St Petersburg's 2011 Queer Fest. The festival is returning this year despite the gay propaganda ban.
Photo courtesy of Coming Out.

The Russian city of St Petersburg is pressing ahead with its annual Queer Fest despite a law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’.

The law was introduced in March this year and officially is about stopping children from hearing information about homosexuality, although activists say it is an excuse to silence debate and campaigning on LGBT issues.

Last month Madonna faced prosecution under the law for speaking out for gay rights during her concert in the city.

Run by St Petersburg organization Coming Out, the Queer Fest is one of the largest LGBT rights events in Russia.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 visitors are expected to attend across 10 days of seminars, discussions, photo exhibitions and concerts against homophobia.

Polina Savchenko, Coming Out’s director, told Gay Star News that Queer Fest 2012 can work around the law.

She said: ‘For street demonstrations we need to get prior permission but for cultural events which take place in private venues we don’t need to.

‘We have invited the official ombudsman for human rights for St Petersburg. I am not sure if he can come. But he is the only official we have notified.

‘It is difficult to predict what will happen. We suspect there will be attempts to apply pressure on the festival. This is what our government usually attempts to do. They will put in a phone call to the main venue and say “don’t run this event”.

‘Unfortunately, because of the law, we will have to put up signs saying children under 18 are not allowed to attend the event as the law is about protecting minors, so we will be keeping to the law.’

If, however, the authorities find an excuse to prosecute Coming Out, they could face a 1million rouble ($34,400 €25,000) fine. Harassment and arrests by the city authorities are also possible.

And earlier this year, 100 right wing extremists attacked Coming Out’s International Day Against Homophobia street demonstration so attendees and organizers also face a risk of violence.

But Savchenko thinks the current persecution is a reason to press ahead and hopes for international support in doing so.

‘The “propaganda of homosexuality” law condones homophobia and stigmatization of LGBT people,’ she said

‘We already see a significant increase in aggression and violence towards LGBT. Until the public learns about us and stops being afraid of us, such absurd and populistic laws are going to be possible.

‘The law was intended to force us into hiding. Instead, we are going to double our efforts at open dialogue with society, and will make this festival twice as big as before.’

Queer Fest 2012 will welcome international award-winning Spanish photographer Diego Verges, Swedish artists Anna Viola Hallberg and Annica Karlsson Rixon and it will close with a concert by Lena Katina, the voice of former group tATu.

Politicians attending include Flemish Minister for Youth, Education and Equal Opportunities Pascal Smet, Swedish Minister for Gender Equality, Deputy Minister for Education Nyamko Sabuni, and State Secretary to the Minister of Education of Sweden Bertil Östberg.

The festival program can be found here.

Watch a video of support from Lean Katina (in Russian) here:

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