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The collapse of the Soviet Union relaxed many restrictions on alternative sexual practices in Russia, including the lifting of a ban on homosexuality. But Russian gays and lesbians still consider a distant dream the rights enjoyed by their counterparts in the West. Life for Russian gays remains particularly difficult in the provinces, where homosexuals say intolerance and discrimination is rife.
Moscow, 15 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's City Court yesterday upheld a ruling denying a same-sex couple the right to register their marriage in the Russian capital.
The appeal was brought by Edvard Murzin, a deputy in Bashkortostan's State Assembly. Murzin, who is straight, had hoped to officially wed a gay man with the aim of highlighting the continued oppression facing many Russian homosexuals.
Murzin, who began campaigning for gay marriages a year ago, wasn't surprised by the court ruling. He told RFE/RL politicians continue to shy away from the problem, even as hate crimes and other forms of homophobic discrimination are on the rise.
"When I approached Duma deputies and told them there was 5 percent of the population who had a different [sexual] orientation and whose rights needed to be protected, they either ran away or said this would hurt their image or make their ratings drop," Murzin said. "No one is willing to address this problem."
The fact that the Moscow court even agreed to consider Murzin's appeal, however, is a small victory in itself. He said he now intends to create his own organization in Bashkortostan to protect the rights of homosexuals.
In Russia, human rights groups rarely take an interest in the situation of homosexuals, saying Russia has more urgent problems to tackle.
Most Russian gays and lesbians themselves do not expect immediate change. They say it will be decades, at best, before Russia is ready to grant them the rights homosexuals enjoy in some Western countries. These include the right to marry, adopt children, or have parental rights over the partner's child.
Drawing attention to the problems of homosexuals is particularly difficult in Russia. Russian authorities are reluctant to discuss any sexual issues in public, a habit inherited from the prudish Soviet past. The state long viewed homosexuals as an immoral and individualist fringe.
But in 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin repealed Article 121 of the Criminal Code outlawing what was called "muzhelozhstvo," or literally, "a man lying with another man." The crime was punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Soviet Criminal Code did not officially outlaw lesbian relationships. But gay women ran the risk of losing job opportunities and even being committed to psychiatric institutions.
Soviet-era taboos and state reluctance to address homosexuality have left many Russians uninformed about the issue. This is especially true in the provinces.
Aleksandra Sotnikova is an activist who runs Labris, a lesbian organization in St. Petersburg. She told RFE/RL that widespread ignorance is at the root of the homophobic feelings prevailing in Russia.
"The main reason for the strong homophobia in the country is the lack of information," Sotnikova said. "All the mass media do are spread fears which foster ignorance. In the provinces, people still say that it [homosexuality] is a mental disorder, that homosexuals are rapists, that they corrupt minors. There are many such myths and misunderstandings."
Gays and lesbians have achieved a certain degree of acceptance in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where homosexual night clubs, for instance, are no longer a novelty. But in more remote towns, fear of rejection and discrimination leads many gays and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation from their families, friends, and colleagues.
Edvard Mishin -- who was slated to wed Murzin in the proposed same-sex marriage -- lives in Moscow and is the editor in chief of the gay magazine "Kvir" (Queer) and the website gay.ru. He said that coming out as gay in a Russian provincial town usually equates with ruining one's life.
"The main problems of gays in the regions are discrimination at work and, above all, the impossibility of confiding in people close to them. In small towns, information spreads instantly and afterwards gays can't find work, and very often lose friends and family," Mishin said.
Sotnikova, for her part, says it took her family almost four years of conflict to accept her relationship with her girlfriend.
Russian homosexuals' fears have also been fueled over the past few years by several attempts by a group of State Duma deputies at reintroducing the ban on gays. The deputies described their move as part of what they called a campaign to restore traditional moral values in Russia.
In June last year, the Duma narrowly defeated another bill that aimed at banning alcoholics, homosexuals, and pedophiles from holding seats in parliament.