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Gays in Russia face backlash, plan protests

Thirteen years after homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia — and a more tolerant era appeared to dawn — gays now find themselves increasingly under attack. They plan a march in Moscow on March 17 that has so far not been given the go-ahead by officials.
Head of Russian Lesbian Movement Debryanskaya speaks during news conference in Moscow
Evgeniya Debryanskaya, head of the Russian Lesbian Movement, speaks during a news conference in Moscow on Monday. Gay activistists submitted a request to hold a gay pride march in Moscow on May 27, but Moscow's mayor is opposed to the event.   Alexander Natruskin / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

MOSCOW — Thirteen years after homosexuality was decriminalized and a more tolerant era appeared to be emerging, Russian gays are fighting a backlash, both from anti-gay elements and government officials.

The controversy has escalated in recent days with Moscow's mayor so far refusing to issue a permit for the city's first gay pride parade,which was called for by activists in the face of recent homophobic attacks.

The organizers submitted a request to Moscow city officials on Monday for a march on May 27 to mark the anniversary of their official recognition by the state. However, Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, office has threatened to ban the march, saying that the proposed event had “evoked outrage in society, in particular among religious leaders.”  

New era
The showdown is a sharp contrast to the situation for Russian gays in early 1990s, when homosexuality was decriminalized, prompted by then-President Boris Yeltsin's desire to bring Russia closer to European Union human-rights requirements. The revised laws led to a new era for Russia’s homosexuals, who had previously lived in constant fear of oppression, discrimination and physical attack.

Gay clubs and cafes came into being — first in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then in other major cities across Russia. Numerous radio and television programs focused on the life of people of “untraditional sexual orientation,” as gay people are officially referred to in Russia.

In fact, open homosexuality appeared to be so accepted that a savvy showbusiness producer even created a pop duo called “Tatu” proclaiming that they were lesbian. In reality they were not, but the media hype around them swept the duo to the top of the pop charts not only in Russia but also across Europe and in the U.S.

In recent years, though, the tide has turned, and gays have again come under pressure.

The changes in attitude were highlighted several years ago when Gennady Raikov, a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament's lower house, started a campaign to reverse the abolition for criminal prosecution of homosexuality. His attempt failed, but the attacks on homosexuals did not stop there.

Alexei Khodorkovsky, a gay activist, says the anti-homosexuality mood in Russia has been increasing steadily. This is especially true, he says, outside larger cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The situation has become so bad, Khodorkovsky says, that he believes that even if permission were granted for a Moscow gay parade, the rank and file of the gay movement may still not show up for fear of repercussions.

"In today's Russia, there's little to celebrate for the gay movement," said Khodorkovsky. "It still is life-threatening to openly confess you're gay." Russian society, he says, needs to go through a slow and steady process of openness for it to stop seeing homosexuality as an aberration.

Vocal opposition
Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s mayor, has been outspoken about his opposition of homosexuality and the proposed event.

On February 22, during a Berlin press conference for the "M4" meeting (a meeting of the mayors of Paris, Berlin, London and Moscow), he described homosexuality as "unnatural,” which immediately provoked criticism from the mayors of Paris and Berlin, both openly gay.

Luzhkov has powerful support. Recently, Russia's Orthodox Patriarch, Alexi II, wrote to the mayor, praising Luzkov for "protecting Moscow and Muscovites against attempts to organize a public parade of propaganda for sin." The Vatican's representative in Russia, Archbishop Àntonio Mennini, described Luzhkov's refusal to let the parade go "a wise decision,” arguing that "such a manifestation would certainly lead to an aggravated tension in Russian society and possibly even to violence." Meanwhile, Russia's top rabbi, Berl Lazar, told the Russian media that gay pride parade in Moscow "would be a blow for morality.”

Club attacked
The belief that being gay is a deviancy is even embraced by major media outlets. Aleksei Pushkov, an anchor with TV Center — a channel run by Moscow mayor Luzhkov — broadcast a story asserting that homosexuals are less capable of complex thinking than heterosexuals and are thus intellectually inferior.      

And then there is an unlikely coalition of young thugs and conservative Christians lined up against homosexuals.

Last month several hundred protesters — including skinheads, nationalists and religious protesters — massed in front of a Moscow club where organizers had advertised an "Open Party" for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Many of the protesters shouted threats and angry slogans — including "No perverts here" — and threw bottles, rocks and eggs. Meanwhile, elderly women and orthodox priests displayed Russian Orthodox icons.

Some of the protesters reportedly beat at least one person attempting to attend the party and when police eventually arrived and the club was evacuated, people leaving the building were hit by stones and other objects.

The following night, at least 100 protesters targeted another gay club in Moscow, shouting abuse and smashing the windows of nearby cars. Police arrested 39 protesters, charging most with minor offenses against public order.

Fighting back
Following the April attacks, gay activists said they were launching a campaign to fight homophobia.

In particular, they announced plans to stage the first international gay and lesbian festival in Russia, slated for May 24-28. The event will feature exhibitions, seminars and conferences, including one by Oscar Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland. A centerpiece would be the May 27 march, to be held exactly 13 years after the criminal prosecution for homosexuality in Russia was abolished.

Nikolai Alekseev, head of GayRussia, is organizing Moscow’s gay pride festival in cooperation with the International Day Against Homophobia Organization (IDAHO), created by Louis-Georges Tin, a French expert in the issue of homophobia.  They expect delegates from 40 countries to take part, including politicians from France and Germany.

In compliance with Russian law, the application for the parade was submitted 14 days in advance, and a decision is usually issued within 72 hours.As of Tuesday, Moscow's City Hall had not responded to the parade request and declined to comment on the application.

Determined to have their say
Whether the city approves the parade or not, gay activists say they are determined to having their voices heard.

Alekseev, the organizer of the proposed parade, says his organization is contemplating a series of unauthorized events if the proposed parade is stalled.

"Since this is a human rights issue, we will hold pickets and flash mobs in downtown Moscow to show the authorities how serious this is,” said Alekseev, adding that Russia's gay movement will surely take the city government to court if the ban on the parade is upheld.

"And we're ready to pursue this right up to the European court, if we have to,” said Alekseev.