MOSCOW —The American star of a hit Russian sitcom has come out as gay after four years on the show – and the first public reaction has been surprisingly muted.
Odin Biron, 30, spoke about his homosexuality in an interview with "New York" magazine. The issue is especially touchy in Russia, which passed laws in 2013 criminalizing gay "propaganda".
“I’ve never lied,” he told the magazine. “Journalists ask, ‘What do you think of Russian women?’ ‘Well, Russian women are beautiful.’ ‘Do you have a girlfriend right now?’ ‘No, I don’t.’”
The Minnesotan plays a lovable, naïve American in medical sitcom “Interny” - “Interns” - a Russian take on “Scrubs” that has ranked among Russia’s most popular TV shows since its premiere in 2010.
Biron’s friend and co-star, the flamboyant actor and Orthodox priest Ivan Okhlobystin, advocates the criminalization of homosexuality and once remarked that Russia should “burn gays in the oven.”
Okhlobystin tweeted on Tuesday that he was “cursing fate” after “learning that his friend Odin is a Sodomite.”
“Some things are better not known. Lord preserve us from this devilry,” added the actor - an ultra-conservative with a bohemian lifestyle, biker past, political aspirations and penchant for America-bashing.
Biron told "New York" he once wanted to quit over Okhlobystin’s comments. However, he changed his mind in the hope of influencing Russians’ perception of gays through example, not confrontation.
In a statement, Biron said he does not see himself as an activist, "but at a time when sexual minorities in Russia face greater adversity, both socially and legally, than at any time in recent memory, I feel compelled to use my unique platform to speak out."
"If my coming out publicly can give hope to anyone, or encourage them to do the same, then the sacrifice of my privacy is worth it," he said.
Russia’s anti-gay crackdown surged in 2012 with the start of the third term of President Vladimir Putin, whose support was bolstered by conservative rhetoric.
In 2013, the Russian parliament criminalized “gay propaganda among minors,” punishable with hefty fines — and expulsion for foreigners — although Biron has not been threatened so far.
The new law triggered a witch hunt, with religious activists forcibly outing closeted gays, same-sex couples fined or attacked for displays of public affection, and conservative lawmakers filing suits against Madonna and Lady Gaga over “gay propaganda” at their Russian shows.
Ninety-four percent of Russians said they were opposed to “gay propaganda” in a 2012 poll by the independent Levada Center – although 86 percent admit they had never encountered any.
However Biron, whose character is heterosexual but is the child of gay fathers – may still retain his place in Russian hearts.
Russia’s tabloids have yet to attack Biron and a representative of TNT, the Gazprom-controlled channel that airs his show, said the actor’s coming-out will have no impact on his involvement in the series.
Criticism was also hard to find on the show’s social media platforms, which count a combined 2 million followers and where Biron holds a 94-percent popularity ranking.
“At least we’ve one open gay in the country now, even if he’s American,” said one comment on Vk.com, Russia’s answer to Facebook.