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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 07:37 GMT
Gay pride challenges Moscow
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News website, Moscow

Public gestures of affection of the most innocent kind between a man and a woman, such as holding hands, can upset Sasha, a young gay man from Siberia.

Bookstand in Moscow gay lifestyle store
Gay Moscow has been keeping its rainbow flags indoors
They hurt him because much of Russian society rejects the right of him and his boyfriend to do the same.

However, if a bid to hold Russia's first Gay Pride parade pays off, Sasha and thousands of other gay men and women will take their sexual orientation to the streets of Moscow on 27 May.

It is a big "if" in the face of strong opposition from politicians who do not question the legal right of gay people to pursue their lifestyles in privacy, but do not want to see them making a show of it.

Clergy from Russia's two biggest faith groups, Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims, have equally frowned upon the idea.

This week, the issue of the Moscow Pride electrified Moscow's media after a Muslim cleric was quoted as saying the paraders should be "thrashed by decent people".

It is a scenario which alarms Moscow's authorities in a year when Russia is entrusted with both stewardship of the G8 and, from 20 May, the Council of Europe - a body dedicated to promoting human rights.

Privacy and provocation

Inna Svyatenko, chairwoman of Moscow City Council's security commission, does not have a problem with the city's gay community.

Sasha with his glasses case the rainbow cloth he uses to clean the lenses
In Russian slang, a gay man is "blue" (goluboy) and a gay woman "pink" (rozovaya)
Homosexual acts in Russia were punishable by prison terms of up to five years until 1993

"This city and civic society here are very protective of our sexual minorities," she says.

Gay people work freely in the city and are greatly respected for their contribution in areas such as retail and the creative professions, according to Ms Svyatenko.

They have their own clubs and, she adds, you need only look out the window of her downtown office to see where a gay lifestyle store opened its doors recently.

But she argues against the parade on three grounds:

  • that much of the gay community allegedly oppose it themselves

  • that similar events in East European capital cities like Riga last year ended in violent clashes

  • that the preferred route would cause massive traffic disruption.

According to her information, most gay people in Moscow do not want the Pride because "it is their private life and they do not want to put it on show" and because such an event could provoke violence.

Inna Svyatenko
Inna Svyatenko wants to avoid the clashes seen in Europe last year

"In our fragile society, do we really need to provoke a situation in which the ultra-right and so-called skinheads rise up and the law enforcement agencies are unable to guarantee the safety of the paraders?" she asks.

Of course, the police could suppress any disorder if necessary, she says, but nobody in the city authorities would be prepared to take responsibility for "artificially provoking the disorder".

To allow a parade down Tverskaya Street, Moscow's central artery, would cause massive disruption in a city already choked with traffic, she adds.

"If the gays chose an area on the outskirts of the city or somewhere in Moscow Region, I think the authorities might take a different view," she says.

Inna Svyatenko accuses the organisers of the parade, and their supporters outside Russia, of "wanting to make a name for themselves without any thought for the impact of such an event on other people like them".

"I realise there are certain European countries where these parades have a long history and nobody cares but let's not drag Russia into this - Russia is not ready," she argues.

Breaking the ice

The word "pidor", a corruption of "pederast", is still one of the most common terms of abuse in Russia.

Whatever the local objections in Moscow, the parade would mark the first-ever Pride in Russia as a whole and public tolerance of gay people is still largely confined to a few big cities.

Nikolai Alexeyev (photo supplied by same)
If people had really maintained the status quo in our history... homosexuality would still be a crime
Nikolai Alexeyev
"Russia needs the parade because it will help the country to show that we are a tolerant society," argues Nikolai Alexeyev, the chief organiser of the Pride.

"It will be a very strong attempt to break the ice between society and the gay community. People will understand that there are no reasons to be scared of sexual minorities."

Russian media, in his opinion, distort the image of gay people, portraying them as "perverts and people who only need pity".

Predicting a turnout of some 5,000, he strongly objects to moving the parade away from the centre though he is open to negotiation about the final route.

He also rejects the suggestion that many gay people do not want the Pride. Some gay businessmen, he suggests, are anxious about the Pride's possible commercial fallout, but, "at the end of the day, the fact is that activists and individuals support this event".

The Pride organiser links homophobia in Russia to poverty, saying the "more wealthy people are, the less they care about such things".

But some of the event's most vocal opponents are religious leaders, refusing to accept the validity of "non-traditional" sexual orientation, to use the Russian euphemism.

'Glorifying sin'

Talgat Tadzhuddin, head of the Muslim Spiritual Board in Central Russia, told Interfax news agency that Muslim anti-Pride protests could be angrier than those seen abroad over the Muhammad cartoons.

But his reported call to "thrash" paraders was not taken up by his counterpart in Asian Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov, who went on a Moscow radio station to say the use of violence was unacceptable.

While also rejecting the use of violence, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has condemned the Pride as "homosexual propaganda and the glorification of sin".

Men interviewed in Moscow's new gay store did not believe the gay parade would happen simply because of the mounting hostility.

Its fate will not be decided until two weeks before it is due to be held, when the formal application for permission must be lodged with the Moscow mayor's office.

The mayor's office could not be reached for official comment but is believed to be strongly opposed.

Wilde's legacy

Among foreign figures lending support is Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde, who, while not gay himself, plans to be in Moscow.

"I am happy to add my voice to those raised in protest against homophobia; my grandfather was imprisoned in 1895 simply for being a homosexual and our family was almost destroyed as a result," he wrote in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin this month.

Nikolai Alexeyev passionately believes in the need to make a stand, whatever the risk of a backlash. The Pride is timed to fall on the 13th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia.

"If people had really maintained the status quo in our history, the Cold War would have never ended, Boris Yeltsin would have never come to power and homosexuality would still be a crime in Russia," he says.

Meanwhile, in the Moscow gay store, the little plastic rainbow flags of the international gay rights movement stay firmly on the shelves and the store's business card refers only to "our theme".

Evidently, for some, a "love that dare not speak its name" must remain anonymous in Russia.

I am a newcomer to South Africa and I am still surprised at the level of "official" hostility towards homosexuality, particularly from the church generally. Just like Russia! Bravo to the organisers of the Moscow Gay Pride. Raising awareness was tough enough for western gays but within a country with no great track record for tolerance of individual rights, this must be a huge task, and one which deserves the support of Gay men and women everywhere! The love my partner and I have for one another most definitely "speaks its name", and the more that voice is politely insistent, the more people are beginning to listen and to comprehend even here in macho South Africa. It will be heard in Russia as well! Alan Edwards
Alan Edwards, Port Elizabeth

Homosexuals make up less than *5% of the population, so what is the point of them marching to "celebrate" the fact that they are a sexual anomaly? Within the mainstream heterosexual population there are most certainly fetishists or other groups who number about the same but they don't have marches to 'celebrate' their activities in the bedroom. Let the Russians decide what's acceptable in their society without western interference. *Figures are based on those discovered by the UK and other blood services using millions of questionnaires each year on sexual behaviour (and therefore have the only true figures ever obtained) who turn down 5% of male donors each year as they are homosexual, because of the risk of HIV to blood supplies.
Andrew, UK

As homosexual practice has been deemed acceptable by secular society in general, there should be no conflict in having these marches (although I would like to know what the point of them is!). However, there are many who are not secular and do not accept homosexuality as a viable, alternative form of human sexuality. This is not homophobia as some would have us believe, but a way of maintaining a moral perspective on human behaviour through a spiritual understanding of the true nature and purpose of sex.
Mark Phillips

I am an openly gay man of 61, living in a stable same-sex relationship for 27 years. I am against "Gay Pride" demonstrations because I know I would feel threatened by a "Straight Pride" march. Just get on with your lives, those around you will soon come to accept your sexual orientation.
Paul Barnes, Gozo, Malta

Allowing this march to go ahead would help with the international view that Russia is changing.
Graeme Stronach, Edinburgh, Scotland

You never see a Straight Pride parade thrown in the faces of others to see. Keep it to yourself.
Joe, South Korea

Of course Moscow should have its first Gay Pride Parade. The Russian people and their leadership must not be intimidated by religious extremists. There will be no end to their demands - it is like giving your little finger to the devil. Sooner or later it wants the whole hand. And what comes to Moscow's traffic problems: Why not have the parade on a Sunday, like it is held here in West Hollywood. No traffic problems!
Tomi Hinkkanen, Los Angeles, CA, USA

This is where the battle for full equalization has moved to and this is where we all should support these brave people.
Stephen, Basingstoke

The parade should go ahead, and the state should ensure the safety of all who parade. It is a freedom of expression that has to be defended especially so in a great nation like Russia.
Richard, West Midlands, UK

Many eastern European countries are having some trouble accommodating themselves to the idea of liberty. Having thrown of the yoke of communism they risk, as with Poland, descending into a bigoted conservatism underpinned by the over-influential church (whether orthodox or catholic). It would be a valuable stake in the ground for this parade to take place in Moscow in a year when the world's eyes are focused on Russia.
Mike, London

I helped organise Scotland's first Pride event, in 1995. We came up against similar opposition. The opposition within the gay community does tend to stem from gay-oriented business, often not even gay-owned, who profit from ghettoisation and don't want to see mainstream acceptance. There are also always those people who have been so oppressed for so long that they truly do think they should be ashamed of themselves and hide their sexuality. These people must be kindly but firmly opposed. Religious opposition tends to be of a very predictable nature, and defeating it depends on a given society's view of religion, and its right to tell others what to do. Perhaps this is a bigger problem today than it was eleven years ago, since politicians seem swifter now to bow to the demands of mullahs than ever they were before. Political opposition will always be aligned with what is perceived to be public opinion. We too had local councillors bemoaning the effects on traffic, and quoting gay people as not wanting the march. But the argument is at least there to be won with the politicians, and you must take it to them with strong belief in yourselves. The existence of all these forms of opposition simply proves that the Pride event is needed. I hope Moscow takes hear from the fact that Edinburgh and Glasgow overcame these obstacles and the annual Pride event in Scotland is now endorsed by gay business, religious groups and local and national government each year.
Duncan Hothersall, Edinburgh, Scotland

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