TV & Radio
Russia gays hear call: Go back to the closet
Homosexuality is no longer a crime, but as the nation's first gay pride parade nears, scorn and abuse intensify, and religious leaders weigh in
By Alex Rodriguez
Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
Published May 25, 2006
MOSCOW -- On a recent Sunday night, the organizers of a gay party at a Moscow nightclub peered nervously out the front door. Clustered outside were hundreds of screaming demonstrators, some of them liquor-addled skinheads throwing bottles and eggs, others old women in head scarves clutching Russian Orthodox icons and crosses studded with small nails.
The mob pounced on anyone who approached. The women used the icons as cudgels against guests coming up to the door. Young toughs in tracksuits and steel-toed black boots slammed their heads into the front door, shouting, "Russia is for Russians!"
"It was very frightening," said Lyubov Ulyanova, the club's director. "The police just stood there and watched it all."
Homosexuality was taken off the books as a crime in Russia in 1993, but the gay community remains a magnet for scorn and abuse, forced to tread carefully and quietly through a society saddled with Soviet-era biases.
Parade still lacks permit
Gay leaders in Moscow hope to raise awareness about their community Saturday, when they attempt to kick off Russia's first gay pride parade through the streets of the capital. Whether the event ever gets off the ground remains in doubt. So far, city leaders have refused to give parade organizers permission.
Gay leaders vow to stage the event anyway, despite the protests outside the Renaissance Event Club on April 30 and another demonstration at a different club the next night.
"We want this to be our public coming out," said Nikolai Alexeyev, a leading gay activist behind the parade effort. "We don't want to stay in the closet anymore."
In an age when gay communities in the West actively assert their rights and enjoy social acceptance, many homosexuals in Russia find themselves forced to keep their lifestyles a secret from families, friends and co-workers. Russian employers routinely find ways to cull gay workers from the workplace. Physical attacks on gay men are rarely taken seriously by police and Russian courts.
"The mindset within the gay community is, `Let's keep quiet, otherwise they will come and get us,'" said Alexander Golousenko, a 36-year-old gay Muscovite who owns a travel agency that caters to gays and organized the party at the Renaissance Event Club. "Everyone says, `Try not to show you are gay, be careful about what you say, be very discreet.'"
Russia's intolerance for homosexuality is rooted in the Soviet era, when it carried a penalty of up to five years in prison. A poll conducted in 1989 indicated that a third of Russians favored extermination of the country's gay population, and 30 percent favored segregating them, according to Igor Kon's 1995 book, "The Sexual Revolution in Russia." Only 6 percent of the poll's respondents supported the gay community.
"During the Soviet period . . . lesbians were locked up in psychiatric wards, treated as if they were insane and given medication normally given to schizophrenics," said Yevgenia Debryanskaya, a longtime gay activist and owner of Moscow's 12 Volts Club. "That same kind of homophobia that we had during Soviet times exists today."
With the advent of glasnost, a gay subculture began to evolve as journalists and academics began discussing homosexuality more freely. The movement picked up after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Clubs catering to the city's gay population opened; gay newspapers and magazines began circulating.
Nevertheless, in many ways Russia's gay community remains as stigmatized as it was during Soviet times. Alexeyev, 28, founder of the gayrussia.ru Web site, says his attempt to submit a doctoral thesis on the rights of Russia's gay community was rejected by his professors at Moscow State University.
Religious leaders take sides
"They simply said it's not the kind of topic they want at their university," Alexeyev said. His lawsuit alleging discrimination by the university failed in a Moscow court, and he now is pursuing the case in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
Alexeyev appears headed for another showdown with authorities, this time over his attempts to organize Russia's first gay pride parade. Sergei Tsoi, a spokesman for Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, told reporters in February that a gay pride parade was out of the question, largely because it "evoked outrage in society, particularly among religious leaders."
One of those religious leaders, Talgat Tadzhuddin, a top Russian Muslim cleric, warned that Russian Muslims would take to the streets and flog gays if the parade were permitted. Bishop Daniil, a Russian Orthodox leader from the far eastern Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, region, likened homosexuality to leprosy.
The backlash has been just as strident in the Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament. Alexander Chuyev, a prominent member of the nationalist Motherland Party, has proposed legislation that would criminalize material in the media or the Internet that in any way depicts homosexuality or promotes the gay community's agenda.
Chuyev doesn't mince words about his view of gays in Russia: As long as homosexual men and women stay in the shadows, he doesn't have a problem with them. "But if the gay community wants to come out into the open, that encroaches on our rights--our right to a normal life," Chuyev said.
Under Chuyev's proposal, an editor or TV producer could be banned from the profession for two to five years if convicted of publishing "gay propaganda" in the media or the Internet.
"In our country, the majority of people do not agree with homosexuality," Chuyev said. "So if homosexuality comes to public life, we'll see the beginnings of a very dangerous situation in society. A public citizen war, I think."
In making his case for banning the parade, Luzhkov told Human Rights Watch that city officials had to "take into account the point of view on the issue of the overwhelming majority of Muscovites and residents of Russia." Making popular sentiment the determining factor, Human Rights Watch argues, is an argument unlikely to hold up if the dispute is brought to international court.
"One key purpose of human-rights protection is precisely to ensure that majority opinion cannot deny the rights of minorities," Scott Long, director of Human Rights Watch's lesbian and gay rights program, wrote in a letter to Luzhkov dated May 8. "Banning the planned parade because of fears of disturbance due to counter-demonstrators would amount to giving violence a license to curb free expression."
Representatives of gay community are adamant in holding gay parade in Moscow