Working in a St. Petersburg restaurant after high school, Kristina Kochetkova was prepared for long hours and rude customers. She didn’t expect her boss to goad her in front of her co-workers for having two mothers.
“It felt incredibly uncomfortable,” Kochetkova said from Russia’s second-largest city, recalling how he interrupted a staff meeting to ask about her parents, staring as she blushed.
The incident, which took place after President Vladimir Putin stoked international ire by signing a law banning the spread of so-called gay propaganda, helped her decide she wouldn’t talk about her family as she starts college this week. The 17-year-old grew up knowing her parents were unusual. Now she worries they might be considered criminals.
“Technically, my mothers are breaking the law by propagating their relationship to me,” Kochetkova said in a telephone interview. “It’s sad and incredibly unfair.”
As the school year starts, same-sex parents are grappling with how honest to be with teachers and classmates. The law Putin signed June 30 puts gays and lesbians with children at particular risk, said human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
“It’s a cruel measure against those children,” she said. “Their parents are scared and teaching them to hide and lie.”
Passed unanimously by parliament, the law sets fines of as much as 1 million rubles ($30,200) for spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” and a “distorted conception of the equivalence between traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.”
It’s one of several anti-gay edicts, including a ban on the adoption of children by people in countries allowing same-sex marriages and another outlawing gay-pride parades in Moscow. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg enacted a local propaganda ban last year, barring information about homosexual relationships that could harm “the health and moral and spiritual development of minors.”
While Putin has defended Russia’s human rights record, calling gays “full-fledged members of our society,” he’s said he supports the law because it shields children from harmful information. He’s not a fan of same-sex marriages, noting they don’t produce offspring at a time of demographic challenges. The birth rate is a political issue in Russia, where the population shrank to 142.9 million in 2010 from 145.2 million in 2002.
Putin ally Elena Mizulina, a sponsor of the national propaganda bill, has cited the goal of reversing declining birthrates as she campaigns for new policies to tax divorce and pay couples to have at least three children.
“The social conduct that’s being aggressively imposed on Russia is inherent of Western civilization, with its fetishizing of human rights, including those of sexual minorities,” Mizulina, head of the Committee on Family, Women and Children in the State Duma, or lower house, wrote in a 50-page proposal she prepared for the government.
In an interview on REN-TV in June, she said parliament should consider removing adopted children from same-sex couples’ homes because “there is a high chance that this child will imitate the behavior of his parents.” Mikhail Degtyaryov, a Duma member and candidate for Moscow mayor, suggested the government fund “reparative therapy” for homosexuals.
Putin hasn’t commented publicly on the proposals. Since returning to the Kremlin last year for a third term as president, he has embraced a conservative ideology and maintained close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which views homosexuality as a sin.
About 74 percent of Russians are Orthodox, according to a 2012 poll by Moscow’s Levada Center. Its polling has found limited tolerance for homosexuality -- 13 percent in an April survey said gays should be prosecuted and 38 percent said they should be “treated.”
In the year since St. Petersburg’s propaganda law went into effect, Sasha Semenova, 30, said she and her partner have grown increasingly wary. They’re raising her 8-year-old son in the city of about 5 million, and warned him before he started second grade this week to avoid mentioning his parents are women.
“I get jumpy when my son tells strangers that he has two mommies,” Semenova said in an e-mail. “It’s dangerous because I don’t know who may be listening.”
Semenova, who heads the parents network at Coming Out, a nonprofit in St. Petersburg, estimates there are only several dozen same-sex couples with children in the city. She said she feels more like a minority every day.
“We face a constant threat on the streets, at school,” she said. “That law has changed a lot in our life.”
Coming Out has been invited to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 5, a project manager for the group said by phone today, asking not to disclose her name because of the sensitivity of the issue. Obama is set to visit St. Petersburg for the Group of 20 summit this week.
Olga Kochetkova, who raised Kristina with her girlfriend, said they steel themselves before venturing out in St. Petersburg, where they were pelted with eggs in June during a gay pride parade. An online poll conducted last year by the Russian LBGT-Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that 15 percent of respondents said they’d been physically attacked at least once in the previous 10 months.
“Just walking down the street with my partner is becoming more and more unpleasant,” Kochetkova, 41, said.
The top fine under the national law for an individual is 5,000 rubles -- the 1 million-ruble maximum is for “legal entities” such as companies and nonprofits -- and non-Russians can face as long as 15 days in jail and deportation.
The American singer Madonna briefly faced the prospect of being fined last year for saying at a St. Petersburg concert that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and tolerance. In July, Dutch filmmakers shooting a documentary about gay rights in Murmansk were the first foreigners detained under the national statute in a case that, like Madonna’s, was dismissed, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
That was one of the few times the law has been implemented, according to Ksenia Kirichenko, Coming Out’s legal adviser. “I doubt it will be applied on regular basis,” she said. “At the same time, it’s brand new, so we can only speculate about how it’s going to work.” The main effect, she said, might be its fueling of discrimination against gays.
Russian Sport Minister Vitaly Mutko has said the law will be enforced during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that start in Sochi Feb. 7. Putin signed a decree banning protests or rallies in the Black Sea resort from Jan. 7 to March 31.
For Kristina Kochetkova, the St. Petersburg teenager, the issue isn’t how or whether the measure is applied but the power of its mere existence. “People nowadays feel much more comfortable making homophobic remarks,” she said. “The law has untied their hands.”