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MAY 22, 2009

Moscow police smash Pride march for the fourth time

Moscow--Scores of police descended upon nonviolent gay equal rights protesters on May 17, as demonstrations across the world marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia and the Russian capital hosted the finals of the campy Eurovision Song Contest.

Gay civil rights campaigners, led by organizer Nikolai Alekseev, held placards and changed pro-gay slogans as waves of police, ranging from plainclothes officers to the OMON Special Purpose Police Squad, descended upon them.

Around 40 people were arrested, which led gay comedian Graham Norton, hosting the BBC broadcasts of the Eurovision finals, to mention the police actions during the show.

Activists hoped to use the international attention provided by the Eurovision finals, a major TV event held in a different city each year, to draw the eyes of the world to the plight of LGBT people in Russia.

For the fourth year in a row, they ran afoul of the city’s federally-backed mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has banned all gay parades, labeling them “satanic,” while allowing violent, ultranationalist skinhead groups to march with impunity.

Last year, those skinheads attacked the gay rights protesters, and then were allowed to leave while police arrested the activists instead.

Two Western activists were arrested along with the natives: Peter Tatchell of Britain’s Outrage and American Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network.

Both issued statements to their networks after returning from Russia.

“Thank you to all who were concerned for my safety, but it's really our Russian and Belorussian lesbian and gay friends who are the courageous ones for defying the repression of the Russian government,” Thayer said in an email. “Any dangers or challenges I faced pale by comparison to what they have braved.”

He went on to hail the success of the march.

“Talking about this year's Gay Pride in Moscow, the police chief promised that ‘No one will dare to do it, such “brave-heart” will be torn to shreds,” he continued. “Well, we did do it. Not only did ‘brave-heart’ Russian and Belorussian gays and lesbians bravely defy the macho bluster of the police chief, they also successfully skirted a series of pre-emptive arrest attempts by Moscow's ‘finest.’ Lesbians and gays also proved that despite the authorities' vastly superior resources, the stupidity of their anti-gay bigotry was matched only by the incompetence of their repressive efforts.”

Tatchell, one of the world’s pre-eminent activists, publicized his thoughts in a guest column in the British newspaper Guardian.

In the piece, he quotes Alekseev, who thanked Mayor Yuzhkov for giving the small band of LGBT activists an international stage.

“Luzhkov has done more than anyone to publicise gay rights in Russia,” Tatchell transcribed Alekseev’s words. “By stopping the gay parade he has provoked massive media coverage of our fight against homophobia. The Russian media has been full of reports about gay issues for the last week. This has hugely increased public awareness and understanding of gay people.”

Even the Moscow Times reported on the arrests, with a headline that read, “Police Violence Clouds ‘Best-Ever’ Eurovision.”

While never criticising the police or government directly, reporter Anna Malpas wrote, “International reaction was clouded by the violent suppression of a gay rights protest earlier in the day that threatened to tarnish a national image that Russia had spent millions of dollars trying to buff.”

Another LGBT event, the Baltic Pride Parade, was held on May 16 in Riga, Latvia.

Drawing 600 participants from the region, it was organized by activists from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

A last-minute attempt by the Riga City Council to block the march was unsuccessful, and despite the presence of counterprotesters and the police, the event was carried out peacefully.

The city council’s picket and parade commission revoked permission for the event on May 14 after council members argued that it was a security threat. However, the administrative court in the city overturned the decision the following day.

This was the first year that the event, which has successfully fought back ban attempts in previous years, was jointly organized by Latvia’s Mozaika, the Lithuanian Gay League and Estonian Gay Youth.

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