Rights Movement Divides Russia's Gay Community

Police officers in Moscow detain an activist at an attempted gay pride parade in May. Gay rights campaigners said media coverage allowed the whole world to witness the plight of gays in Russia.
Police officers in Moscow detain an activist at an attempted gay pride parade in May. Gay rights campaigners said media coverage allowed the whole world to witness the plight of gays in Russia. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)

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By Anton Troianovski
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 11, 2007

MOSCOW -- Elena Gusyatinskaya's tiny apartment in the drab northwestern outskirts of Moscow holds a special place in the city's gay subculture. Her living room is really a gay-themed library, lined to the ceiling with books, manuscripts, magazines, movies and many-colored binders of newspaper clippings. She also offers a particular kind of public service: storage space for personal diaries that closeted gay men and lesbians are afraid to keep at home.

Journals and memoirs dating to Soviet days, Gusyatinskaya said, show gays trying to make private sense of their sexuality at a time when talk of sex was taboo. Now, with a small gay rights movement taking shape amid a more frank pop culture, gays are struggling with altogether different questions.

Should they openly confront what many people see as growing homophobia in a society where nationalism is on the rise and grass-roots social movements are almost nonexistent? Or should they lie low and hope for gradual improvement? The issue has opened a deep divide in the gay community, with most appearing to favor a low-key approach.

"On the one hand, it's good that people are talking about it, that it isn't covered up that this fact exists," said Gusyatinskaya, drawing on conversations with the hundreds of gay people who have visited her archive in the past decade. "Yet how this is talked about, particularly on television, doesn't help to destroy homophobia, but rather unleashes it."

A handful of activists made headlines around the world this past spring when they were viciously beaten by Russian nationalists at a gay rights protest in central Moscow. Riot police on the scene offered no protection. The activists claimed a partial victory, arguing that media coverage allowed the whole world to witness the plight of gays in Russia.

Firm resistance is needed, said Alexey Davidov, 30, a leader of the march. Gays who disagree "don't realize, if things keep going the way they're going, how many dead bodies there will be all around Russia 50 years from now."

Campaigners say homophobia is as much a political as a social issue. They note that nationalists portray gay groups as conspiring with foreigners to smear Russia's reputation. On May 29, for instance, several journalists published a letter in the pro-Kremlin Trud daily that said: "The short-lasting arrests [at the protest] allowed the foreign press to get video footage of the 'violation of the rights of sexual minorities' -- which is in high demand in the nascent large-scale psychological war against Russia."

Activist Nikolai Alexeyev, 29, sued Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in the European Court of Human Rights for banning gay pride events this year and last, and hopes to legitimize the fight for gay rights in the eyes of Russians by forcing Moscow authorities to protect future marches. At the same time, he says, he is fighting for concrete rights, including the prohibition of discrimination against gay employees and the designation of attacks on gays as hate crimes.

But other gays express skepticism over an approach that pushes them into the public eye. "Some people come to wave their fists, and others come to prove that we're gays, we're somebody and aren't scared of you," said Svetlana, 17, at a Moscow city park frequented by gays. "What can come of it?"

Svetlana refused to be photographed and declined to give her last name. Most Russian gays lead double lives, divulging their sexuality only to their closest friends -- often not to their parents -- and socializing outside the mainstream, in gay nightclubs, online and at special meeting places.

For now, Svetlana and many others can't imagine their lives in Russia any other way. "We don't need to fight for any rights," she said. "This generation that lived during the U.S.S.R. needs to go away, and eventually the younger generation will push out the old one."

Businessman Ed Mishin argues that he would not be allowed to run gay-themed shops in central Moscow and St. Petersburg and publish a gay magazine distributed at many newsstands if Russia were truly as homophobic as Alexeyev says it is.


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