Being gay is not supposed to be a crime in Russia. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993; six years later, the law that sent gays and lesbians to psychiatric wards was annulled. But Russia would still rather have its homosexual citizenry invisible and silent. Nikolai Alexeyev knows that very well. He’s just been released from jail for trying to organize a gay-rights demonstration in Moscow.
Alexeyev, 31, had decided to stage a gay-pride march to take advantage of the spotlight Moscow was enjoying for playing host to the Eurovision finals over the weekend. “We want equal rights. We don’t want to be discriminated against,” the director of Gayrussia.ru said a couple of days before the parade. “Many Eurovision fans are gay, and they will be watching what happens to us.” Wary of the government of Moscow’s openly homophobic mayor Yuri Luzhkov , Alexeyev used guerrilla tactics and, at the last minute, moved the parade from Moscow’s center, farther north to Sparrow Hills.
At the same time, an anti-gay demonstration sanctioned by Moscow’s government was taking place near a metro station in the central part of the Russian capital. Protesters held up signs saying, “Moscow is not Sodom.” Vladimir Terechenko, a refrigerator repairman, said he tells his sons repeatedly that if they come out as homosexuals he will kill them. “Homosexuality is the end of civilization. They are pale, they are sickly, and they smell,” he said. He echoes the opinions of Luzhkov, who has said homosexuality is a disease that needs to be treated, has called gays satanic and has vowed that there will never be a gay parade in Moscow. Despite the violent beliefs and the hateful messages of the anti-gay protesters, they were left untouched by Russian riot police, who sat meekly in their vans during the demonstration.
Not so at Alexeyev’s march. There, an estimated 30 protesters unwrapped rainbow banners and chanted for less than half a minute before Moscow riot police rounded up and arrested everyone involved. Alexeyev, who came to the parade accompanied by a man in a bride’s dress, was swiftly carried off by riot police. One woman, who was surrounded by cameras, was grabbed by riot police as she was giving interviews, her shirt torn on the way to the police bus. Peter Tatchell, a British gay-rights activist, flew to Moscow for the event. He was speaking to reporters before he too was arrested. “This shows Russian people are not free,” he told reporters.
Alexeyev was held overnight in prison and was interrogated for hours at a time. “The psychological pressure was overwhelming,” he told TIME. “This was by far the worst treatment from the police that I have ever received.” He has been arrested four times since starting Gayrussia.ru in 2005. Still, Alexeyev says he will not stop until gay and lesbian couples have the same rights as all other Russians. “We want the right to adopt children and the right to get married.” His work has come at a price. When he came out at 22, he was in the middle of pursuing a master’s degree in law. But when he announced that the topic of his thesis would be gay-rights legislation in Europe, he was expelled. Says he: “There is a homophobic totalitarian past in Russia, while in the present, there is this huge influence of the Orthodox Church, and Russian authorities are doing nothing to stop homophobia.”
In between protests, Alexeyev works with human-rights lawyers to defend gay rights within Russia’s bureaucratic court system. Last week a lesbian couple in Moscow was refused the right to get married; Alexeyev plans to take the case to court. He has had some success with legislation. Last year his activism helped change a law that barred gays and lesbians from donating blood. Alexeyev speaks regularly to gay groups outside Moscow to promote his message of equal rights. “Moscow and St. Petersburg is one thing,” he says. “There are clubs and communities [in the big cities,] but being gay in a Russian small town is scary.”
The fear is pervasive. In Moscow, Viktor, 28, says, “My family does not know I am gay. I am open about it to anyone that asks, but I would never tell my parents. I don’t know what my mother would do, but I know my father openly hates homosexuals.” Like many gay men, Viktor didn’t want to attend the parade on Saturday. “I just want to be treated like everyone else, and going around and screaming I am gay isn’t going to help me.” Says Sergei, who is married to a woman but advertises for liaisons with men on gay dating sites: “Being gay is just not considered normal like in the West. In Russia there are just no good [gay] role models. No normal people who happen to be gay.”
If Alexeyev had hoped that the Eurovision finals would help his cause, he was wrong. The events were treated with an awkward silence from Eurovision organizers. The Dutch team had threatened to pull out of the competition if the parade was banned, but the team did not qualify for the finals. And the Norwegian winner, Alexander Rybak, patronizingly told a press conference, “I think it’s a little bit sad that they chose to have the protest today. They spent all their energy on that parade, while the biggest gay parade in the world [an allusion to the campy performances of the contest] was tonight.”
Nevertheless, Alexeyev tries to find a silver lining to the suppression of his march. “We changed the location of the march at the last minute so that we wouldn’t be attacked by anti-gay groups like previous years,” he says. “This is the first year that no one was seriously injured in the parade.” In gay Russia, that counts for an achievement.