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Russian LGBT activists in U.S. to lobby against anti-gay law

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
November 9, 2013 -- Updated 0431 GMT (1231 HKT)

(CNN) -- Lyudmila Romodina and Oleg Klyuenkov, LGBT activists from the northern Russian port city of Arkhangelsk, hate Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" law but they don't support the idea of a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in Russia as a way of protesting it.

The two members of the LGBT rights organization "Rakurs," which means "Perspective" in Russian, say they hope the Olympics, which will be held in February in the southern Russian city of Sochi, might help to shine a light on discrimination against gay people in Russia, as well as spur discussion.

"We don't want any extra rights" but gay people in Russia do want rights that are equal to those of their fellow Russians, Klyuenkov told CNN in an interview in Washington during a 10-day visit to the United States.

Kluyenkov argues the anti-gay "propaganda" law, which the Russian government says is aimed at protecting young people, "actually forbids people to talk in public about the problem of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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"In practice, other social groups are permitted to express their problems but not LGBT people. And that is discrimination. They are not equal when it comes to their right to freedom of expression," Kluyenkov said.

Arkhangelsk has overturned its regional ban on anti-gay "propaganda" but U.S.-based Human Rights First cautions the step may be only "an administrative act to ensure compliance with the federal law."

Kluyenkov and Ludmila Romodina began their trip in Portland, Maine -- Arkhangelsk's "sister city" -- meeting with the city council and with staff of the district's Congressman.

In Washington, they visited Capitol Hill and discussed the Sochi Olympics with staff of Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat. They will end their trip in New York.

"Rakurs," they say, is a non-governmental organization with approximately 100 members, not all of them active. Some have moved to bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where economic opportunities are greater.

The group rents an office in a community center and Romodina laughs wryly when she explains the landlord told the group he would rent to them "if we don't run naked through the halls and in feathers."

The motto of their organization: "See the goal, believe in yourself and don't look at the obstacles."

"It would be more difficult if Oleg or I or our little band of activists were hidden, but we are open. That is much easier. It's easier emotionally and in our relations with society," she said.

The group, she says, holds protests, "public actions," but only "one person at a time," due to local laws.

In one, she says, three people stood about 150 feet apart, holding signs.

"Our director, my mother, and our bookkeeper," she explains. "My mother's sign said something about the law demeaning her child. It's hard for her. I experience discrimination but she does too. It hurts her."

Human Rights First's Innokenty Grekov says it's not clear how the anti-gay "propaganda" law might be enforced at the Sochi Olympics.

President Vladimir Putin has said everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, will be welcome but the activists believe that applies only to international participants and visitors and not to Russian supporters of gay rights.

Grekov says the law, so far, is "being used indirectly" in order to put pressure on civil society.

"There have been no legal decisions on the law because the government does not want that to happen," he says. "They want to distract public attention from other serious problems in Russia -- political, social and economic."

Kluyenkov adds: "They don't want to go to court on these issues because they know that on the level of Europe or international law they would lose."

The activists are worried about a draft law that would allow children to be taken from their parents if the parents are gay.

Its sponsor has withdrawn the law in order to re-write it but LGBT rights supporters believe it will be re-introduced after the Olympics are over and the spotlight of international attention moves elsewhere.

Grekov says the draft "is written imprecisely" and it is not clear whether it would let authorities take children away if their parents "allow homosexuality" or "engage" in it.

Grekov insists the activists are not trying to stir tensions between the United States and Russia over the gay law or its possible enforcement at the Sochi Olympics.

"We come from the position that the worse relations are between the U.S. and Russia the worse the situation for LGBT and human rights groups as a whole in Russia," he says. "We want people to discuss this, in their kitchens, at the markets. This can be a positive thing."

In August, Human Rights First issued a report on the anti-gay "propaganda" law and on the state of LGBT rights in Russia called "Convenient Targets."

Since 2006, it says, 10 regional legislative bodies have adopted laws prohibiting the "propaganda" of homosexuality but those laws have seldom been applied.

It also reports that during the first half of 2013 there were 13 beatings and one murder "motivated by anti-gay bias." In 2012, there were 12 attacks; in 2011, three.

The report recommends, among other things, that President Barack Obama and the U.S. government direct the State Department to seek clarification of the anti-"propaganda" law.

Kluyenkov says his organization hopes that the international community "will continue appeal to Russia to repeal discriminatory laws, work with its civil society, and respect human rights and international obligations."

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