Kitsch song contest is Russian gays' secret weapon against hatred

Moscow's persecuted homosexual population hope that Eurovision will highlight the prejudice they experience

Andrei Nikolov used to work as a translator at a large Russian company. He says that he was liked at work, was good at his job, and had absolutely no problems. Then, some of his colleagues found out that he had a secret. He is gay. "One of the secretaries told me I was disgusting," says the 25-year-old. "When it reached the boss, he simply fired me and said the company didn't employ freaks."

Mr Nikolov's story is extreme but highlights the homophobia that permeates the whole of Russian society. Russians are some of the least tolerant people in Europe when it comes to homosexuals. Research by the Pew Research Centre found that just 20 per cent of Russians believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

In protest, the country's gay community is planning the biggest pride march in its history next Saturday, with many fearing it could end in a bloody riot.

For years, the beleaguered community has tried to hold gay parades in Moscow and each year they are denied permission by the city's Mayor, who has described them as "Satanists". Those hardy few who do turn out – less to celebrate their sexuality, they say, than to highlight homophobia and rights abuses – have in previous years been harangued and even beaten up by a combination of Orthodox Christian activists, skinheads and the police. This year, however, there's a secret weapon – the Eurovision Song Contest.

On 16 May, the day that Europe's lovers of kitsch music descend on Moscow and the continent's TV cameras will be out in force, the last thing the Russian authorities will want is an embarrassing street riot. But if past events are anything to go by, that is exactly what might happen.

The capital's Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, reminded Muscovites this week that the march would be "toughly stopped by police". "The Moscow government is saying: Moscow has never had gay parades and it never will," his spokesman said.

"Not only do they destroy morals within our society, but they consciously provoke disorder which threatens the lives of Muscovites and visitors." A recent report by the human rights watchdog the Moscow Helsinki Group found that gays and lesbians in Russia are subjected to a range of prejudices in everyday life, especially in the workplace. The Russian media doesn't help, frequently equating homosexuality with paedophilia and referring to gays as dangerous people. The report criticised authorities for their approach of at best keeping silent on discrimination, and at times actively promoting it.

The influential Orthodox Church regards homosexuals as sinners, and homophobia is widespread at all levels of Russian officialdom. While Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became something of a gay icon after being photographed bare-chested in a series of homoerotic fishing poses, his statements on the issue have been at best ambivalent. When asked about the Moscow Mayor's claim that gays were Satanists, Mr Putin answered that he wouldn't comment on the statement itself, but as far as gay parades were concerned, it should be remembered that "one of the country's biggest problems is connected with demography".

Valery Sozayev, who organises the Russian Week Against Homophobia, said: "It's more of an issue here, because there is no legal framework to fight against discrimination on grounds of sexuality. In the West it's already not seen as acceptable to be openly homophobic; here it's still OK."

Instead of being used to fight homophobia, Russian law is being used to prosecute homosexuals themselves. Last month in the city of Ryazan, two activists were found guilty of "homosexual propaganda towards minors" by a local court. They had stood in a public place with posters reading "Homosexuality is normal" and "I am proud of my homosexuality". The judge fined them around £30 each and ordered that the posters be destroyed.

"I consider myself liberal in most respects," said Marina, a 25-year-old graduate who works in publishing. "But gays are disgusting. We don't need your perverted Western propaganda claiming that two men loving each other is OK. In Russia, it's definitely not OK."

Moscow has the gay clubs and shadowy cruising areas that are to be expected of any major European metropolis, but everything is done in secret. Some of the biggest gay clubs, which can accommodate hundreds, are completely unmarked at street level to avoid unwanted attention. Many gay Russians say they are saved from overt prejudice and violence by this low profile and the notoriously weak "gaydar" of their countrymen. "Compared to other European cities, it's a much more closed circle; more intimate and discreet," says Dmitry Diyarov, a 24-year-old fashion co-ordinator based in Moscow.

The organisers of next week's parade say they will ignore the ban and are hoping for a turnout of more than 1,000 people. Whether the Russian authorities will want their Eurovision party spoiled by violent clashes over a gay parade remains to be seen. Gay expatriates say many of their friends will be coming to Moscow for the contest and are keen to take part in the parade, while hotels report a large number of bookings from European male couples.

In the past, the presence of foreigners at the events has not stopped things getting out of control. British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who attended the 2007 parade, was abused by Orthodox old ladies, punched in the face by skinheads, and then arrested by police who taunted him with homophobic jokes, while his assailants were allowed to walk free.

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