MOSCOW -- As a heterosexual former army medic in the tough tank-producing town of Nizhny Tagil, Valentin Degteryov never imagined he'd be risking his life to champion gay rights.
But that all changed this year after he saw a series of videos, made by a local nationalist gang, showing gay men being bullied and tormented.
Degteryov, 43, launched an online campaign to shame the group that made the videos. He appealed repeatedly for the police to arrest them. He sent images of the abuse to international gay rights groups to rally support abroad.
His outspoken stance earned him threatening phone calls and nationalists have offered to pay a bounty to anyone who beats him up. But Degteryov wasn’t deterred. If anything, he became more vocal.
"In reality, strength lies with the people who don't fear the fascists and the scum in this country -- with people who will fight for the rights of any person," he says. "Homosexuals are people too, just like me."
Degteryov’s activism did not end the group's abuse of gay men. But his unlikely stand for gay rights in his rough-and-tumble industrial hometown in Russia's Urals region is significant in itself at a time when homophobia is on the rise across the country.
Russia is witnessing a 15-year high in homophobia and an uptick in violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups, according to sociologists who point the blame at controversial new legislation such as the law imposing hefty fines for exposing minors to so-called "gay propaganda."
Straight activists like Degteryov are the other side of the story. They show how even in the conservative heartland, gay rights are gaining some traction among straight Russians.
'Two Sides To The Coin'
Another example is Natalya Tsymbalova, 36, who works in public relations in St. Petersburg and founded the Alliance of Heterosexuals for LGBT Equality out of solidarity with her gay and lesbian friends.
Tsymbalova believes that recent "antigay" legislation has conversely spawned a fledgling movement of straights campaigning for gay rights.
"There are two sides to the coin," she says. "Two processes that have happened in parallel. On the one hand, the homophobic state policy has hardened homophobic attitudes in society. The polls show more negative attitudes toward gays and lesbians. On the other hand, this wave of antigay legislation has provoked protest from socially active people who are liberal and tolerant."
Tsymbalova points to her own group, which she founded in June last year, shortly after a local law outlawing "gay propaganda" was passed by the St. Petersburg legislature.
A few dozen of the group's heterosexual activists coordinate gay-rights protests in the city for its almost 10,000 social-network members.
The organization is now spreading to Moscow through people like Ivan Simochkin, a freelance computer programmer in the capital. Like many group members, Simochkin became interested in LGBT rights after he made friends with a gay Muscovite who takes part in gay-pride marches.
"When I first met him, I didn't know about the existing problems," he says. "Gradually, I began to take an interest and I saw just how insane and unjust the situation was. I couldn't stand by. I wanted to help somehow. And all this time I dreamed that there would be an organization where it wouldn't be just gays and lesbians defending themselves, but one in which heterosexuals also acted in solidarity with them and helped defend and protect them."
Pages on social networks like Facebook
have also been set up to express straight solidarity with gays.
Spike In Homophobia
Maria Plotko of the Levada Center said that recent legislation on homosexuals has made Russians who were previously indifferent about LGBT issues hostile to them.
If in 2005, more than half of Russians believed that lesbians, gays, bisexual, or transgender people deserve the same rights as straights, now only 39 percent do, according to the Levada Center's most recent poll.
In May the pollster found that 35 percent of Russians believe homosexuality to be a disease, while 43 percent see it as resulting from a lack of discipline or simply as a bad habit, the highest level in the center's 15 years of polling.
An overwhelming majority of Russians support the law against gay propaganda and even opposition figures are reluctant to take up the issue.
Significantly, none of the six candidates competing in the September 8 Moscow mayoral elections have broached the issue of gay rights, except in a pejorative sense. Mikhail Degtyaryov of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia suggested polygraphing
mayoral candidates in order to screen them for homosexuality, "betrayal of the motherland," drug-taking, or soliciting bribes.
Tsymbalova is under no illusions of the battle she is signing up for. She sees her alliance as the first step in a long tussle that has a long way to go.
"Now this law has gone deeper -- now that it has been passed on a federal level there is a whole wave of homophobia from the state," she says. "I don't know how it will end and what it will bring. I think we are just at the beginning of our journey."