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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Russia's assault on 'gay' free speech

A proposed national "gay propaganda" law threatens to silence a nascent LGBT movement.

MOSCOW, Russia — Tension hung thick in the air at a faux-Italian cafe at Sheremetyevo International Airport on a sunny February afternoon. Russia’s highly contentious and best-known gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev sent out a final round of press releases on his МacBook as he sipped beer and munched on pizza.

“Eat, try to look normal,” Alekseyev said to the three other activists with him, each nervously looking around. "There are police here.”

Alekseyev, clad in a blue polo shirt and a yellow tie, paid the bill, and then along with the other members of gay rights organization Gay Russia marched to the Aeroflot Russian Airlines counter and placed leaflets that read, "Rejected by gays."

With GlobalPost present they unrolled a banner in support of a gay flight attendant the airline allegedly threatened to fire if he did not marry a woman. In another few minutes they would all be arrested, another brief spectacle put down by Russian police as a nascent equality movement challenges an increasingly hostile climate for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBTs).

In Russia, demonstrations in favor of equal rights for LGBT people are simply not permitted. The February airport arrest was unique because it did not result in any injuries for the Gay Russia activists. Usually pro-gay demonstrators are beaten and arrested within seconds of hoisting rainbow flags or unfurling banners.

“They are bringing back a law from the stone age.”
~Sergei Ilupin, activist

The city of Moscow has a longstanding ban on gay pride events and legislation recently passed in St. Petersburg would levy fines against “propaganda of homosexuality” in the presence of minors. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church is lobbying the Duma to make the law, which effectively bans public discussion of homosexuality, a national one.

As Vladimir Putin tightens his stranglehold on power in Russia, critics say the country is moving away from democratic ideals like free speech and back toward Soviet-era controls.

In February Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department called the situation for LGBT people in Russia “very difficult.”  

Aleksyev and his comrades know this very well.

Before the airport demonstration, Alekseyev and the others laid out a banner in a nearby snowy field that read "EQUAL RIGHTS FOR AEROFLOT GAYS!”

They burned green and pink smoke and waved to landing planes as temperatures dipped below zero Fahrenheit. The group was ready for arrest each time a car turned onto a road near the field.

Of course Alekseyev would have preferred to demonstrate in front of the Aeroflot offices on central Arbat Street in Moscow, but his request for a permit was denied. So he came up with another plan.

“You realize the situation of LGBT rights in Russia when you have to run around in knee-deep snow in sub-zero weather,” Alekseyev said.

*****

While gay marriage and anti-discrimination protections become a reality in an increasing number of places around the world, the LGBT struggle for equal rights in Russia is in its infancy.

Being openly gay in Russia’s patriarchal society remains a big risk. Homophobic attacks are common and assailants often go unpunished. Many gays stay in the closet, and even get married to the opposite sex, for fear of losing jobs, friends or family. Russian LGBTs say the message they are receiving from both the state and the Russian Orthodox Church is simple: Homosexuality may be legal, but stay out of public life.

No official statistics exist on discrimination or hate crimes against LGBT people because they are not considered a protected social group in Russia. But the Russian LGBT Network has independently compiled extensive research from across the country in recent years with help from USAID.

One poll covering 44 Russian regions in March 2010 reported that 43 percent of Russians condemned gays and lesbians while another 20 percent found it difficult to answer.

In April 2010, the International LGBT Film Festival “Side by Side” was conducted in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most populated city. A public opinion poll of the city’s inhabitants found that 22 percent regarded those with a “non-traditional sexual orientation” as “sick” while another 35 percent were indifferent providing that “they [LGBT people] do not make themselves known.”

The Russian LGBT Network also interviewed users of a Russian website for gay men and found that almost 80 percent hide their sexuality from their employers and colleagues. If a potential employee were to openly announce a gay sexual orientation at a job interview, said Yuri Virovets, the president of Moscow staffing agency HeadHunter, he or she would likely not get the job.

Russian gays and lesbians are also more likely to experience aggression from police than heterosexuals. The result is that gays and lesbians usually do not go to the police in case of a hate crime, one of the organization’s reports said.

In 2007 a man was stabbed to death outside of a gay club in Yekaterinburg, a city in Russia's Ural Mountains. The killers wrote "faggot" on the victim's chest in his blood. Police denied the homophobic details of the incident and the victim’s family was unable to get information about the case. The defendants were given minimal sentences with chance of parole for good behavior.

*****

A small core of activists led by Alekseyev emerged in 2005 to try and reclaim a place in open society, but so far they are largely outmatched. In order for LGBTs to legally attend demonstrations, the event must be coordinated by non-gay organizations, with the request carefully worded to reveal nothing about their participation.

Last May, an unsanctioned gay pride demonstration near Moscow's Red Square, organized by Alekseyev, and attended by prominent international LGBT activists including Americans Lt. Dan Choi and Andy Thayer, was heavily marred by violent clashes with Orthodox Christians, neo-Nazis and police, drawing international attention.

A middle-aged man who claimed to be an Orthodox Christian punched journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko, 24, a petite lesbian who slightly resembles Natalie Portman, in the head. She suffered a concussion and hearing problems as a result, she said.

Her attacker, who was captured on film, has not yet been convicted.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/russia/120316/gay-rights-russia-battle-free-speech

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