MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered new assurances to gay athletes and fans attending the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics next month. Yet he defends Russia's anti-gay law by equating gays with pedophiles and says Russia needs to "cleanse" itself of homosexuality if it wants to increase its birth rate.
Putin's comments in a TV interview broadcast Sunday still show the wide gulf between the perception of homosexuality in Russia versus the West. A Russian law passed last year banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors has caused an international outcry.
Putin refused to answer a question on whether he believes that people are born gay or become gay. The Russian law, however, suggests that information about homosexuality can influence a child's sexual orientation.
The Russian president has found himself frequently discussing his country's anti-gay laws, as the world's attention shifts Russia's way ahead of the Olympics. Putin has identified himself closely with the $50-billion event. Calls for a mass boycott of the games due to the laws have failed, but the row has clouded the build-up to the event.
Critics say the law is discriminatory and part of a rolling back of human rights and democratic freedoms under Putin, who has taken a more conservative course on social issues since returning to the presidency in mid-2012.
On Friday, Putin insisted Russia is not "going after" gays, according to Reuters.
"There is no ban on non-traditional forms of sexual interaction between people. We have a ban on propaganda of homosexuality," Putin told a meeting with young volunteers preparing for the games. "We ban nothing, we aren't going after anyone, we have no responsibility for such contacts."
Putin said some U.S. states had laws envisaging criminal responsibility for gay sexual intercourse.
"We have no such thing, people can feel free and at ease but please leave the children in peace," he said.
Putin did not elaborate. In a victory for gay rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 invalidated any remaining anti-sodomy laws that prohibited sex between adults of the same gender.
In a clear message to Moscow, U.S. President Barack Obama included three openly gay athletes in his Olympic delegation and Britain said it would sent to Sochi a minister responsible for the country's same-sex marriage laws.