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How Russia’s Biggest Homophobe Joined an LGBT Social Community

Vitaly Milonov, Russia's newest, most unlikely member of an LGBT community. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Vitaly Milonov, Russia's newest, most unlikely member of an LGBT community. Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

In the wake of a decision by the US Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Internet users all over the world have been coloring their social media avatars with rainbows—the symbol of LGBT rights. Mostly famously, Facebook is even offering an official service, called “Let’s Celebrate Pride,” that allows users to shade their existing profile pictures with the rainbow flag.

This phenomenon has caused a stir in Russia, where conservatives have created a tool that overlays social media profile pictures with the colors of the Russian flag—a gesture apparently meant to express one’s opposition to “nontraditional marriage.” (Read Max Seddon’s story about this at Buzzfeed.)

Vitaly Milonov, the St. Petersburg city councilman who pioneered Russia’s first ban on “gay propaganda,” has vowed to appeal to Russia’s federal censors to get Facebook banned in Russia, saying the rainbow avatars are visible to millions of underage users in Russia, supposedly putting young people “at risk.”

Things have gotten to be so heated that a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, is even advocating a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for Russia, to spare the country an unnecessary “barbed and intense battle against gays.”

Following the breakthrough for gay rights in the United States, Lentach, one of Russia's most popular satirical communities on VKontakte, briefly renamed itself “LGBTach,” adding a rainbow flag to its own avatar. According to the group’s administrator, Mark Shein, the decision to endorse (genuinely, it appears) gay rights has prompted a flurry of activity from subscribers, with thousands of people suddenly joining and leaving the community.

According to Shein, the group, which has more than 770,000 members, lost 5,430 subscribers on the day it changed its name and avatar. This was more than 4,000 un-subcriptions above normal. In that same period, 3,465 new users subscribed to the group—also several thousand more people than on an average day. In other words, there’s strong reason to suspect that this spike was a response to Lentach’s endorsement of LGBT rights. As a result, the community’s total audience dropped about 2,000 subscribers.

Audience statistics for Lentach, via Mark Shein. Pink represents unsubscriptions and blue respresents new subscribers. VKontakte.

Shein says he’s glad to be rid of anyone who disapproved of “LGBTach,” writing on VKontakte, “Everyone should realize that we [at Lentach] never wanted to work for these people [who unsubscribed], and this whole thing has turned out to be a great way to cleanse ourselves.”

In what Shein calls an “added bonus,” Lentach’s brief renaming and rainbow-redecorated avatar resulted in a slight embarrassment for none other than Vitaly Milonov, who for some reason subscribes to Lentach on VKontakte. In a post this weekend that has attracted more than 10,000 “likes,” Lentach triumphantly shared a screen capture of Milonov’s VKontakte page, showing his membership in an “LGBT interest group.”

On his own VKontakte page, Shein, whose avatar now shows him smoking through a rainbow-colored balaclava, celebrated the coup against Milonov, posting a link to a news story about the city councilman’s unintentional membership in a group promoting gay rights.

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