May 17 (Bloomberg) -- Skinheads armed with smoke bombs taunted gays in central St. Petersburg in the first sanctioned gay rally in Russia’s second-largest city since it banned so-called homosexual propaganda last March.
About 100 gay rights proponents were outnumbered two-to-one by protesters identifying themselves as Orthodox Christian activists at meeting that was cordoned off by police.
Participants arrived by bus carrying rainbow flags and colored balloons and chanted slogans including “shame to fascists” for about 15 minutes before leaving. They paused for a minute of silence to honor a gay man murdered in Volgograd on May 10 in what local police are calling a hate crime.
“This rally was organized as a reminder to civil society about the rights of homosexuals,” Olga Lenkova, a spokeswoman for the Coming Out advocacy group, said in an interview. The rally was the first approved by the city since November 2011, Lenkova said. Three prior petitions were rejected before changes to local legislation were passed, she said.
International celebrities led by Madonna condemned St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko’s decision last March to sign legislation that bans lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “propaganda.” Madonna was sued by nine city residents for flouting the ban during her concert in St. Petersburg last August. A judge dismissed the 333 million-ruble ($10.6 million) suit.
The law forbids comment or actions that give minors “the false perception” that traditional and nontraditional relationships are socially equal. Violators face fines of 5,000 rubles for private individuals, 50,000 rubles for government officials and 500,000 rubles for organizations. Similar bills have been enacted in 12 of Russia’s 83 regions.
The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, on Jan. 25 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would apply the propaganda ban nationwide. Lawmakers in Moscow are scheduled to vote in the second of three required readings May 25.
Thirty-six percent of Russians favor curbing the civil rights of homosexuals, according to a poll published today on the website of Moscow-based Levada Center. The survey of 1,601 people was taken April 19-22 and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
“It’s a shame that events like this happen in St. Petersburg,” said Vitaly Milonov, the local lawmaker who wrote the propaganda bill. “Normal citizens have to fight for normal families,” Milonov said as he observed today’s rally.
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