The Canadian government is warning gays tourists to Russia to avoid being open about their orientation if visiting St. Petersburg after a new law came into effect last weekend barring the promotion of homosexuality.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House of Commons on Friday he's concerned by a law that "runs contrary to core Canadian values of freedom of speech, of human rights and the rule of law," Postmedia News reported.
"Canada's ambassador has written to the Russian government to express our deep concern."
Foreign Affairs' advisory on travel to Russia on its web site notes that while homosexuality is legal in the country, "some still strongly disapprove of it.
"Canadians are advised to avoid displaying affection in public, as homosexuals can be targets of violence," the advisory says.
The new St. Petersburg law bans "public actions propagandizing homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality among minors ..." Public actions, including disseminating information, statements, displays or conspicuous behaviour that appear to contradict the law could lead to arrest, prosecution and a fine. The department noted similar laws also exist in some other Russian cities.
The warning moved swiftly through the world's gay community, showing up on web sites such as Queerty.com.
Travel Gay Canada director Bruce McDonald said gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender tourists will likely heed the warning because they are very safety conscious.
"The No. 1 thing that gay and lesbian travellers look for is safety, and if they don't feel safe it's certainly going to be a deterrent," Bruce McDonald, whose site promotes tourism in Canada, told Postmedia News.
Some gays elect to visit places where homosexuality is repressed to show solidarity and participate in political protests, he added. But overall, Russia stands to lose because gay travellers tend to spend twice as much as their straight counterparts.
The new law also has opponents in Russia. Journalist Masha Gessen, author of a recent biography of Vladimir Putin, wrote a blog post in the New York Times calling for a tourism boycott of St. Petersburg, a city Putin once ran.
"I think it's one of the most beautiful cities on earth," she said. "I have many friends who live there. And I am asking you, please, do not visit it."
Gessen aimed her plea specifically at Madonna, who's scheduled to stage a concert in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, as well as big corporations attending a June economic forum.
"Please help us show them that they do have something to lose," she wrote.
"Tourism makes up an important part of the city's income. The Canadian foreign ministry has already warned tourists to be wary of the law. The international community should take a step further. Do not go to St. Petersburg."