MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin said Friday that gay people have nothing to fear in Russia as long as they leave children alone.
Mr. Putin met Friday with a group of volunteers in the Olympic mountain venue at Krasnaya Polyana to wish them success at the Games. During a question-and-answer session, one volunteer asked him about Russia's attitudes toward gays, a subject that has provoked worldwide controversy, and Mr. Putin offered what was apparently meant to be a reassuring answer for visitors to the Olympics.
"One can feel calm and at ease," he said. "Just leave kids alone, please."
That phrasing -- with its intimation that gays might prey on children -- hardly seems the kind of guarantee sought by the United States and other Western governments and human rights activists.
Gay rights have become a contentious issue at the Olympics, which begin Feb. 7, because Russia passed a law last year prohibiting the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices" among minors.
The law has been used to ban gay rights parades -- children might see them -- and to curb discussion of gay issues on television and in newspapers for fear that those younger than 18 might hear or read about homosexuality. Teachers ignore the subject, isolating gay teenagers.
Some have interpreted the law as encouragement to beat up on gays. And there has been talk of taking children away from gay parents.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a U.S. advocacy group, said her heart went out to gay and lesbian families who had to live under harsh Russian laws. "Mr. Putin can peddle fear and misinformation, but the global community is increasingly siding with equality for all people," she said.
The law has provoked deep concern in the United States and other Western nations, where it is seen as a human rights infringement. European leaders have decided to stay away from the Winter Games, and President Barack Obama sent a protest message by choosing a delegation to represent him that includes Billie Jean King, a well-known gay athlete.
"I think the best thing that can be done is that the media continue to shine a light on this issue," said Norman Bellingham, former chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "There is always the hope that having the Games in an environment brings the full force of the world's media on the issues in that particular country or region."
The International Olympic Committee has steadfastly refused to criticize Russia, saying it believes its assurances that there will be no discrimination. But activists think otherwise.
"Putin's promise that gay and lesbian Olympians and spectators will be safe in Sochi is meant to distract from his country's oppression of its LGBT citizens," said Andrew Miller, a member of Queer Nation, a gay rights group based in New York. "That gays are dangerous to children is an obvious lie meant to justify his violation of the human rights of gay men and women. We are not fooled, and neither is the world."
Children are everywhere, said Julianne Howell, reached at home in Loveland, Ohio, where she has organized a petition drive on Change.org to persuade sponsors to drop their support of the Olympics to protest the gay law. "Simply being gay in front of children is wrong under the law. It means you can't be yourself."
In speaking to a room full of volunteers dressed in their Sochi warm-up gear, Mr. Putin attempted to put Russia on higher moral ground than other countries. Homosexuality is not a crime in Russia, as it was in the Soviet Union. Homosexuality was legalized in 1993. Police, he said, do not pluck gays off the street. In the United States, he asserted, some states impose criminal penalties for homosexual relations. Not Russia, he said. (In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that laws prohibiting gay sex were unconstitutional.)
"We have no ban on the nontraditional forms of sexual intercourse among people," Mr. Putin said in remarks carried by the Interfax news service. "We have the ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia. I want to stress this: propaganda among minors. These are two absolutely different things: a ban on certain relations or the propaganda of such relations."
One more question: Why, a volunteer asked, do Russia's Olympic uniforms contain the colors of the rainbow, the rainbow being a symbol of gay rights? Don't ask him, the president said. "I didn't design the uniform."