Monday, May 29, 2006

Alaska Is Not Sodom, Either

With the advent of another Gay Pride Month just three days away, and Anchorage gay rights groups organizing and preparing the usual battery of commemorative events, it presents a useful opportunity to remind people as to just how controversial this issue is and how much these people are swimming against an historic and natural tide of homophobia. The Moscow News website provides us with an account of a recent gay-rights demonstration in Moscow that turned physical. Click here for the full story.

Synopsis: Activists attempting to hold the city's first-ever gay rights march on Saturday (May 27th) were overwhelmed by hundreds of militant Orthodox Christians and ultranationalists, some throwing smoke bombs. A handful of activists were injured in the ensuing melee, including a German lawmaker. Volker Beck, a member of the German Green Party serving in the Bundestag. Beck, his face streaked with blood, was detained by police. More than 100 gay rights activists and some of the most vocal foes were arrested by police. Among the first to be arrested were Nikolai Alexeyev, the march's chief organizer, and Philippe Lasnier, an aide to the mayor of Paris.

Pedestrian movement was blocked for a few hours as riot police cordoned off the square around the monument to Prince Yury Dolgoruky. And traffic on Tverskaya Ulitsa was briefly stopped when smoke bombs -- resembling flares and emitting large plumes of smoke -- were thrown at the intersection at the base of the street, across from the Kremlin.

In anticipation of such disturbances, Mayor Yury Luzhkov had previously banned the parade, and on Friday a city court upheld the ban. This ban kept the turnout low. However, Alexeyev said on Sunday that the event had been a great success, despite the low turnout. "A hundred people were not afraid to go out and protest homophobia and fascism," he said. Organizers limited pre-march publicity so as to avoid exposing gays and sympathizers to greater physical risks.

Organizers had hoped the parade would be the capstone of a two-day conference bringing together gays and lesbians from Russia, Europe and the United States. The conference, called Moscow Pride '06, was described as disorganized by gay web sites not affiliated with the event, which included a lecture given by Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde. The British author, widely known to have been gay, was convicted of gross indecency in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

The physical confrontations began after the marchers arrived at the gated entranceway to the Alexander Gardens, where they were met by women holding icons and wearing long skirts and headscarves. A small group of men in Cossack dress was on hand to protest the march, among others. As the activists laid their flowers at the gate, protesters stomped on them and threw eggs and tomatoes at the activists. And as the protesters' chants -- "Death to fags!" and "Fags out of Russia!" -- grew louder, and as the tenor of the confrontation grew uglier, OMON riot police formed a chain to pry the crowd away from the gate. The icon-bearing women added to the chorus, chanting "Moscow is not Sodom." Many sang psalms, mostly from the traditional Easter service.

After the confrontation at the entrance to the Alexander Gardens, some parade organizers began moving up Tverskaya toward the monument to the Unknown Soldier. The parade's protesters walked in that direction, too. The steps of the monument had been occupied by a large swarm of ultranationalists, including Alexander Belov, head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigrants, and Konstantin Krylov, head of the Russian Public Movement. State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kuryanovich, of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, in a speech at the foot of the monument, lashed out at the "gay mafia" for promoting ideals he called suited for "rotting America and dying Europe." Kuryanovich also recalled that homosexuality was once a crime in Russia and defended the neo-Nazi salute. He then led the crowd in a chant of "Gays and lesbians to Kolyma," the notorious Soviet-era labor camp.

Yevgenia Debryanskaya, a leader of the lesbian rights movement in Russia since the 1990s, tried to give a speech but was doused with water as protesters laughed at her. She was dragged away by police.

Beck, the German legislator, said he had hoped his presence and that of European Parliament member Sophie int Veld would force authorities to provide participants with protection. On Friday, the Council of Europe issued a statement telling gay rights activists in Moscow that the council supported their struggle against homophobia and calling on local authorities to protect marchers.

Other gay rights activists present Saturday included Eduard Murzin, a deputy in Bashkortostan's regional legislature who tried unsuccessfully to register a gay marriage last year, and Paris Vice Mayor Clementine Autain. Murzin is straight. A number of activists had opposed the parade and labeled Alexeyev a self-promoter who sought to use the event to build his own reputation at home and abroad.

Analysis: Was the violence against gays justified? NO! Is it understandable? YES! Russia doesn't have the tradition of open dissent and protest that Europe and America have, so it is unfair to judge them by the standards applied to nations with a longer history of tolerance of dissent. The gay rally organizers could have also found a better role model to lecture them than the grandson of a known sex offender, Oscar Wilde.

Foreign participation in this event merely exacerbated anti-foreign feelings in Russia. The remarks by Deputy Nikolai Kuryanovich, associating gay rights with a "rotting America" and a "dying Europe" epitomize how closely Russians associate the West with cultural pollution. Combined with the Clinton and Bush Administrations' provocative behavior towards Russia, to include aggressively shoving NATO up against Russian borders, openly meddling in the internal affairs of the "near abroad" (Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus), and Clinton's brutal carpet bombing of a Russian ally, Serbia, for 78 days back in 1999, this threatens to completely squander the peace dividend earned when the Russians voluntarily, peacefully, and almost unprecedently dismantled their Soviet Empire. Whether the breakup was real or a ruse is irrelevant; we shouldn't be giving them an excuse to change their minds in the future. And if the Russians finally have enough of our meddling and lash out physically under an ultranationalist government, we in Alaska will be the FIRST to feel it because we in Alaska are the ONLY American state to share a border with Russia. So it's time for us to show more respect for Russia's sovereignty and quit treating them like the bastard stepchildren of the world simply because they finished second in the Cold War.

Gay rights groups in Anchorage should keep this in mind when organizing their events. They've stepped across the line here in the past. Remember when former Mayor George Wuerch ordered a gay pride display at the Loussac Library removed? It was because it was too intrusive. It transformed the elevator entrance into a simulated "closet" so that people could get the "feel" for stepping into and out of the closet. Since this forced elevator users to participate, it was intrusive. Art should entice and invite, but never intrude nor impose. A different gay pride display the following year, consisting of pictures and bios of leading gay citizens posted on the walls of the library, drew no significant objections because one could easily ignore it. Then there remains the thorny issue of Gay-Straight clubs on high school campuses. While the clubs at Dimond and Eagle River High Schools have posed no problems so far, elsewhere they've been used as portals for recruitment and exploitation by adult predators. So to the local gay pride movement, I suggest this: Use your events to inform, not to recruit. One Matthew Sheppard was enough!

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