A perilous pride blooms in Moscow
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Bay Windows
June 1, 2006


A perilous pride blooms in Moscow

The images of tear gas and riot police on CNN on May 27 stirred memories of another police attack on peaceful demonstrators 41 years ago in Selma, Alabama. This time the television images were from Moscow, outside the walls of the Kremlin in Manezhnaya Square. The marchers were not African Americans seeking the right to vote, but gay Russians and their friends from other countries attempting to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexandrovsky Garden.

Unlike the electrifying images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, the footage from Moscow ran for maybe 15 seconds. It had to compete with news of a papal visit to Poland, an earthquake in Java, gang rapes by the Congolese army, a massacre of two dozen Iraqis by U.S. marines in Haditha, and Michael Jackson’s first public appearance since his acquittal on child molestation charges. Still, the valiant Moscow Gay Pride marchers were in the news mix, sharing screen time with the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day motorcycle ride.

To be sure, the historic parallels between Selma 1965 and Moscow 2006 are imperfect. On Bloody Sunday 41 years ago, John Lewis and Hosea Williams had 600 people marching behind them, whereas Reuters reported less than a tenth of that number accompanied Moscow Gay Pride organizer Nikolai Alexeyev. And as British gay activist Peter Tatchell reported from the scene, some of the Moscow marchers were able to avoid beatings by looking inconspicuous. The black marchers in Selma had no such option. But in both cases, local officials forcibly stopped nonviolent marchers. And in both cases, news cameras were present to record the official suppression of a minority group in a self-professed democracy.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had banned the gay parade and threatened mass arrests. He was backed up by an ecumenical array of religious leaders. Talgat Tajuddin, the Chief Mufti of Russia’s Central Spiritual Governance for Muslims, said, “The parade should not be allowed, and if they still come out into the streets, then they should be bashed.” Russian Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar did not call for violence, but said that “sexual perversions” had no right to exist, and called gay pride marches “a provocation similar to cartoon depictions of Muhammad.” A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church called homosexuality a “sin which destroys human beings and condemns them to a spiritual death.”

According to Reuters, when the marchers arrived in Manezhnaya Square, police closed the gates to the park and dragged off Alexeyev. Tatchell wrote, “We were immediately set-upon by about 100 fascist thugs and religious fanatics who began pushing, punching, and kicking us.” March participant Volker Beck, an openly gay legislator in Germany’s Bundestag, told of getting hit in the face. “It was a stone and a fist. It shows we’re not safe in this country. The security forces did not protect us but instead prevented us from retreating.” Several activists moved to a square across from City Hall, where lesbian activist Yevgenia Debryanskaya was arrested.

Reports differ as to whether police protected the gay marchers. According to Reuters, riot police stopped a group of masked neo-fascist skinheads from attacking the marchers, and dragged the skinheads to waiting buses. In contrast, the Washington Post reported that police “stood by as skinheads crowded around Beck and Scott Long of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, who had unfurled a rainbow flag.”

As he was being arrested, Alexeyev shouted, “This is a great victory, an absolute victory – look at what’s happening.” Tatchell wrote, “The repression of a handful of lesbian and gay protestors signifies the fear and weakness of the Russian state. We had a moral and political victory, forcing the Moscow authorities to unleash forces of repression comparable with the bad old days of the Soviet era.” This last observation appears somewhat hyperbolic, since Tatchell, a brave and principled activist, was free and well enough after the clash with authorities to email his report.

What matters, however, is what use the Russian activists will make of the authorities’ repressive actions. The announcement of Moscow’s first gay pride celebration generated significant advance news coverage. As Alexeyev told self-described radical political journalist and media critic Doug Ireland earlier this year, “[T]he homophobic statements from religious leaders increased the media interest to us. Kommersant, the paper of business and finance (a sort of local Wall Street Journal), wrote an article about gays, for the first time. The gay pride is almost in all papers. The coverage also is very balanced and quite positive for the image of gays. I think journalists understood well that if a Mayor can bypass the constitution and prevent us from our constitutional right of peaceful demonstration, then this is obviously a restriction of freedom. Who will be next tomorrow?”

In America, the first gay protest in front of the White House occurred in April 1965. According to organizer Frank Kameny, the protesters arrived unannounced, and were cordially escorted across Pennsylvania Avenue by a police officer who stopped traffic for them. Unlike the voting rights march in Alabama the previous month, the gay protest (which was deliberately done without publicity) went off without incident. It was a small beginning, but one has to start somewhere. More publicity, and struggles, would follow. Washington’s first gay pride celebration was not held until 1972. Now our brothers and sisters in Moscow, at considerable risk, have raised the banner. Three cheers for them.

Copyright © 2006 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.