The Russia’s first international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival, Side by Side (“Bok o Bok”), has been causing controversy.

Conservatives within the country’s artistic community have called for the event to be banned.

The State Artist of Russia Nikolai Burlyaev has publicly called gay people “perverts” and homosexuality a “sin” and an “illness” and demanded St Petersburg authorities stop the event.

However, city officials have said they will neither support or ban the film festival.

Other artists have defended it.

“In my opinion no one has the right to discriminate against a person on any basis,” said Alexander Sokurov, one of Russia’s most prominent film directors.

“Discrimination is a crime against humanity. The fight against discrimination is a basic principal of European civilisation.”

Saint Petersburg-based rock musician Svetlana Surganova, who enjoys a huge following, said:

“People know little about themselves and many are afraid of themselves and in order not to look weak they start to pick on others.

“It is a well-known tactic that the best method of defense is aggression. It will take a lot of great plots and clever films to overcome the fear in our society of such a natural thing as the phenomenon of homosexual relationships.”

The festival will run from 2nd to 5th October, with films and events at the historic Dom Kino House of Cinema, one of Europe’s premier venues for world cinema.

The event, which is expected to draw visitors from over 30 countries as well as major international sponsors, will give film enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy the very best in contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cinema.

Side by Side will also showcase work from around the world including feature films, innovative independent films, documentaries, experimental and short films.

Igor Petrov, an LGBT activist and co-ordinator of the Russian LGBT organisations network, said:

“A long time ago films about gays and lesbians became a phenomenon of world cinema, for example in Berlin and Venice there are special awards for it.

“It goes without saying that the appearance of a gay and lesbian film festival in Russia is a huge cultural event not just for the LGBT community.

“It is yet another possibility of dialogue between us and the rest of society, yet another step to the way out of Russian gays and lesbians from the ‘underground’ where they are forced to stay to this day.”

Although homosexuality is no longer a punishable criminal offence in Russia, homophobia at all levels of society is rife and discrimination against minority groups goes unchallenged on a daily basis.

Many people, fearing a backlash, choose not to come out and, as a consequence, must lead secret or double lives.

“The support is spurring us on,” said the festival organisers.

“Every disparaging remark and voice of disapproval that we have encountered over the last few days is matched by wishes of encouragement and praise for the task we have undertaken.”

The success of Side by Side will serve as a litmus test, showing the extent to which Russia has moved towards a society where individuals are respected and human rights are valued and upheld.