Even as excitement grows for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, news over the games has been dominated by controversy. Just last week the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert to Russia. Much of the fuss over the past few months—and one of the six “risks” outlined by the travel alert—pertains to Article 6.21, a country-wide anti-gay law in place since June.
The new legislation has had ripple effects far beyond its domestic aims: Boycotts of Russian products (namely, vodka), harsh criticism from all-star Olympians, and a clumsy back-and-forth between Russia and the International Olympic Committee. Furthermore, the White House’s official delegation to the Games includes openly gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King, and Caitlin Cahow, but no high-ranking official, as is custom.
While Mother Russia deals with international condemnation of Article 6.21, countries with similarly discriminatory laws have also seen an uptick in bad PR, with renewed calls for boycotts of anti-gay locales.
These developments have prompted us here at T+L to re-examine the very basics of why we travel to certain destinations. For the next few weeks, we’ll be running a series of posts devoted to the subject.
This first post deals with the law itself, answering a few FAQ’s:
1. What exactly does Article 6.21 prohibit?
An update to the country’s Code on Administrative Offenses, it makes the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations”—i.e. homosexual ones—in front of minors a civil offense (not a criminal one).
2. I’m still confused. What counts as “promotion?”
Acts such as waving a rainbow flag, coming out as gay in public (don’t even think about doing so on television), romantically kissing someone of the same sex, or discussing homosexuality with a minor could all be considered promoting LGBT relations, and thus fall under the new law.
3. In other words, being gay in Russia is illegal, right?
Techically, wrong. Article 6.21 only prohibits public expression of homosexuality in the presence of minors. It has no legal bearing over an individual’s private life. President Putin highlighted this distinction last week, telling potential visitors that "You can feel relaxed and calm," in Russia, "but leave children alone please."
4. What if someone goes against the law?
The punishments for breaking the law range from a minimum fine of around $30 to a maximum sentence of 15 days in jail. If an individual promotes LGBT issues in the media or online, fines increase to a minimum of roughly $1,500. In July, police briefly imprisoned four Dutch nationals for asking minors about their views on homosexuality, although they left Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton alone when she stood in Red Square with a large rainbow flag.
5. What if I’m known to be “out” in the States?
Initially, many were concerned that their actions and lifestyle in the United States would fall under the law’s jurisdiction if they visited Russia. William Butler, a John Edward Fowler Distinguished Professor of Law at Pennsylvania State University, stresses any “gay propaganda” (this blog post, for example) made abroad is not punishable under Article 6.21. In other words, even well known LGBT individuals (such as those in the White House delegation) could visit Russia without incident.
6. So is it safe for LGBT individuals to travel to Russia?
Marco North, an American expat who has lived in Moscow for six years, does not feel that the law has changed the situation on the ground. For LGBT individuals in Russia, it’s “business as usual”—meaning, according to North, that the subject is simply not discussed. "If you are gay here, it is a secret," he explains.
Greg Tepper, a T+L A-List travel advisor from Exeter International Travel who has been sending clients (gay and straight) to Russia for 20 years, agrees. “I don’t think travelers are in any new danger,” Tepper says.
That is not to say that they aren’t in any danger, however. Law or no law, gay travelers to Russia—let alone LGBT Russians themselves—have needed to tread lightly for a while. A staggering 88 percent of the populace supports the propaganda ban, and the share of Russians who believe homosexual relations should be prosecuted has more than doubled since 2007 (from 19 percent then to a disheartening 42 percent now).
The major difference—and it is major—is that an LGBT individual who does not exercise discretion now faces potential legal consequences and jail time on top of the already very real risk of violence.
The takeaway? Russia is a safe place for LGBT individuals to travel, as long as they're willing to be discreet about their orientation.
Of course, Russia is far from the only country with antigay legislation. In our next post, we look into other destinations around the world with similar laws.
Peter Schlesinger is a Research Assistant at Travel + Leisure, and a member of the Trip Doctor News Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @pschles08.