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Is Vladimir Putin a Gay Icon? Hardly

Last weekend, the dominant United Russia party confirmed that Vladimir Putin would be their presidential candidate in the elections this coming March. If polls by the independent Levada Centre suggest that support for Putin has dropped to only 35%, he is still, according to the current president, Dmitri Medvedev, the "most successful politician in modern Russia." His party appears set to win this Sunday's parliamentary contest, even if it fails to retain a two-thirds majority. 

For Russia’s gay community, the ascent to power of an individual like Putin could be taken as a positive reflection of society’s growing tolerance towards intimate same-sex relationships. The leader's closeness to Medvedev led one reporter in Italy to question in April 2010 whether the two were not really engaged in a “political marriage." His unabashed shows of virility have fuelled further discussion. His public diving stunt of August this year, combined with the production of combat instruction DVDs (Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin), are just the type of hyper-masculine displays that The Times concluded as early as August 2009, “confirm [his] status as a gay icon."

However, given that an electoral victory for Putin next March would most likely secure his position as president for the next 12 years, it is vital to recognize the fragility of gay rights within Russia and the threat that the United Russia party poses to them.

After Sunday’s elections, a bill aimed at the prevention of the "promotion" of homosexuality will face its second reading. Accepted initially on November 16 in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, the measure would severely restrict the power of the LGBT community in the city, imposing fines on bodies that release books, speak in public, or do anything more generally that could be judged to "spread" homosexuality amongst minors. The vagueness in the wording of the law has caused grave concern amongst human rights bodies, for, as demanded by Russia’s most prominent gay rights activist, Nikolai Alexeev, “What is the difference between the public expression of someone’s loving feeling and the promotion of a lifestyle?”

Considering Russia’s record on gay rights, it is hardly surprising that such a bill is close to becoming law. It was only in 1993 that Article 121 was reversed so that homosexuals would no longer face a sentence of five years of hard labour for their sexual orientation. If St. Petersburg’s move towards a harsher line seems out of step with the area’s cosmopolitanism, similar laws already operate in the provinces of Ryazan and Arkhangelsk.

Putin is not personally responsible for the latest proposal (brought forward by the United Russia party member Vitaly Molonov). Nonetheless, the budding president’s track record gives one little cause to believe that he will vocally defend gay rights in the event of electoral success in March. In June 2007, he once gave his official backing to the previous mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, despite the fact that the latter had called gay pride parades “satanic." His silence on the current measures under consideration ought to be taken as tacit approval, given the wave of criticism that they have attracted from foreign bodies such as the UK Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department.

Russia’s de jure commitment to agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights means that other countries must continue to speak out against these latest steps, particularly given the parallel measures pending in Ukraine. Individuals must add their voices to the petition contesting this move. If it is amusing to brand Putin as a “gay icon” for antics such as shirtless horse-riding, the comments left on the site of the British gay paper, Pink News, seem more reflective of the severity of the situation facing much of the LGBT community in Russia: “A man who has destroyed any hope of democracy or social justice in his country is NO gay icon."

Photo Credit: feastoffun.com

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