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Russia: Gay Parade A Test Of Tolerance

Ultranationalists and Orthodox believers protesting outside a gay club in Moscow earlier this month (AFP) Plans to hold Russia's first-ever gay-rights march have sparked a rare public debate on homosexuality in Russia. While Moscow authorities and religious leaders have condemned the initiative, gays and lesbians are determined to parade down Moscow's main street on May 27 in defiance of an official ban. But many gays are split over whether Russian society is ready for such a colorful defense of homosexuality at a time when nationalism and intolerance appear to be on the rise.

MOSCOW, May 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandr is still hesitant about joining the May 27 unsanctioned march, for fear it will end in violence.

His boyfriend, Vyacheslav, however, has no doubt -- he will stay clear of the parade.

"I think that it must take place, but I won't go because the climate will be aggressive," Vyacheslav said. "I'll wait until the danger is over. Even bystanders watching will be hit in the heat of the moment. Everything will be smashed either by the police or by skinheads. They will smash everyone, girls and boys alike."

In The Spotlight

Efforts to stage an unprecedented gay parade have thrust Moscow's discreet homosexual community into the limelight.

Gay activist Nikolai Alekseyev, the driving force behind the march, says the time has come for homosexuals to step out of the shadows and lobby for their rights. The parade is planned to fall on the 13th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia.

A top Muslim cleric went so far as to call on believers to "bash" gays if they take to the street on May 27.

Not all homosexuals, however, welcome this sudden attention. Many say a gay parade will only serve to heighten homophobia.

Ultranationalists and Russian Orthodox activists attacked two Moscow gay nightclubs last month, throwing bottles, rocks, and eggs at party-goers and chanting homophobic insults.

Stanislav Androsov, the manager of one of the nightclubs that came under attack, blamed the parade's organizers.

"This started with public remarks that Moscow needs a gay parade," Androsov said. "There are some activists who want to hold a gay parade, but many are against it because, as we see, Moscow is not ready for a gay parade. All these attacks against gays started from this moment."

Rain On Parade

News that homosexual activists planned to follow in the footsteps of their Western counterparts by parading through the city center has drawn a chorus of angry comments, particularly from officials and religious leaders.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov banned the march, saying it would "provoke outrage in society." His spokesman added that any attempt to flout the ban would be "resolutely quashed."

The Moscow Patriarchate condemned the parade as a "glorification of sin." Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, warned against "homosexual propaganda." And a top Muslim cleric, Talgat Tadzhuddin, even called on believers to "bash" gays if they take to the street on May 27.

Eating sushi in a fashionable Moscow restaurant, Vyacheslav and Aleksandr say they have learned to ignore such remarks. Vyacheslav says they reflect widespread ignorance of homosexual issues.

Gay-rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev (courtesy photo)

"Why are people against [the parade]? I believe it's out of ignorance," Vyacheslav said. "Everyone has the same, standard argument: 'How can I let my child go to such a parade? He will become like that.' But people don't understand that homosexuality cannot be inculcated. It is not an infection."

Before Russia repealed its ban on homosexuality in 1993, gays were subject to up to five years in prison and lesbians could end up in grim psychiatric institutions. But the lack of public debate means homosexuality is still widely perceived as a perversion or a mental illness.

Personal Experiences

Twenty-seven-year-old Vyacheslav is lucky -- his family has accepted his relationship with Aleksandr and the beauty salon where he works as a hairdresser does not object to his being gay. Nonetheless, he says he will never be seen holding hands with his boyfriend in public.

The situation is more difficult for Aleksandr, a 32-year-old manager in a company selling alcohol. He prefers to hide his sexual orientation from his colleagues, and his parents still refuse to come to terms with his homosexuality.

He describes society's attitude toward gays as "dismal," particularly in the provinces.

Before Russia repealed its ban on homosexuality in 1993, gays were subject to up to five years in prison and lesbians could end up in grim psychiatric institutions.

Before moving to Moscow two years ago, Aleksandr and Vyacheslav lived in Sochi, on the Black Sea. Aleksandr says a neighbor in the communal flat where they used to live asked a male relative to beat up Vyacheslav when she found out they were gay.

"She allegedly saw Slavik [Vyacheslav] and me kissing," Aleksandr said. "She got her daughter's friend involved: he caught Slavik and picked a fight. Then a campaign started, 'down with gays' and stuff like that. Of course, this was said in a much more offensive way. In the end we had to move out."

Aleksandr and Vyacheslav say they would like to marry and raise a child.

But in a country where parliament Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky has called for the death penalty for homosexuals, they know it will be many years before they are granted the rights homosexuals are beginning to enjoy in the West.

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