Taking a stand for freedom

Russian activist hopes U.S. tour will focus attention on gay rights battle in his country, and that international attention will keep LGBTs there safer

TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

A tide of revolution is sweeping the Mideast and Africa right now, proving to the world that citizens can stand up to unfair governments and make a difference. That’s a lesson that Russian gay activist Nikolai Alekseev has been intent on proving for more than five years, many times at great risk to his own personal safety.

Beginning in 2005, Alekseev has each year organized LGBT Pride celebrations in Moscow where he lives, and each year those celebrations have been banned in city officials there. But Alekseev and his colleagues have forged ahead, each year holding their events anyway.

Alekseev eventually filed suit in the European courts against Russian government officials, claiming that they were violating LGBT human rights by banning Pride events. Last year, the courts ruled in Alekseev’s favor, but last month the government officials asked the courts to reconsider the ruling, and the Moscow mayor vowed to once again ban Pride events planned for May.

Last Sept. 5, Alekseev was arrested at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow as he was preparing to board a Swiss Air flight to Geneva. There was at the time no clear information on who had taken the activist from the airport, why he was taken or where he was being held.

Interfax Belarus news agency reported that Alekseev had sent texts saying he was seeking political asylum in Belarus and was dropping his lawsuits in the European courts. However, friends and associates questioned those reports, saying that such statements were out of character, and helping focus international attention on his situation.

Alekseev finally resurfaced in Moscow, where he told his colleagues he was never in Minsk, never sent the texts and had no intention of dropping the lawsuits.

This month Alekseev, with the help of the Gay Liberation Network based in Chicago, is touring seven U.S. cities in hopes of raising awareness on the ongoing gay rights struggle in Russia. Prior to his visit to Dallas next week, Alekseev answered some questions, via e-mail, for Dallas Voice.

Dallas Voice: What happened that made you willing to put your personal safety on the line to fight for LGBT rights in Russia? Was there a single event or was it a culmination of things?

Alekseev: I never really thought about it, in fact, when I started and even after. If we go back to the origins, there was my dismissal from Russia’s most prestigious university where I was studying for my Ph.D., simply because I wanted to make my research on same-sex marriage issue. The faculty believed that it is not an appropriate topic for the Moscow State University.

But I am a person with principles and they were not able to persuade me to change this topic. So they sacked me. I sued them and I lost in Russia. Well, I had little hope to win. But now the case is pending with the European Court of Human Rights.

Working on this research made me look into activism. Quickly I understood that gay activism did not really exist in Russia. So I thought I could have an impact there. Then I came up with this campaign for Moscow Pride. It quickly became a hot topic for the media because the mayor immediately chose to confront us and try to scare us. But I was still so angry that I could not complete my Ph.D., that not the mayor or anyone else could frighten me.

Everything came very quickly after that. We had the first Pride. It was banned; I was arrested. We managed to put our cause in front of the media and, as a result, in front of the society. That was the aim.

After, we launched several other campaigns on freedom of association, same-sex marriage, the [men who have sex with men] blood ban.

We managed to change one thing: The MSM blood ban was repealed after our actions.

DV: Has there been a specific incident in which you feared for your own life, or the lives of family and close friends?

Alekseev: Russian authorities like to pressure people. Some of our activists were pressured. The police ringed their doors, told their parents that they were arrested while taking part in “illegal actions of faggots” and that next time there could be consequences for them or for their other children. Sometimes, it created dramatic outings.

My family doesn’t really care. My parents are retired. The only thing one could do is cut their $200 a month pension. Not a big deal.

And when police ring our doors or sometimes call by phone, it became my dad’s best moment of the day. He likes to drive them nuts!

As for my own life, of course I had fears. But the more you are in this fight, the less you think about it.

I know that my phone is constantly being illegally [tapped] and that I was followed several times while preparing the Pride events. In May [when Pride is held each year], I have to move from place to place to make sure I am not arrested before the day of the Pride. This has a huge psychological impact.

DV: What happened when Russian officials abducted you from the airport? Why do you think they let you go?

Alekseev: The only aim was to scare me and to pressure me to withdraw our historic case from the European Court of Human Rights, which at that point was in its final stages. Ironically, just two weeks after that, the judges met privately and decided the case in our favor.

During detention, I had to bear every possible verbal insult towards gay people, which was far from being very pleasant. But when I returned and saw all the international solidarity I was amazed. So many people did protests around the world and so many people sent messages of support. At this point, I understood that international LGBT solidarity really exists and that it is not an empty word. But we should realize that it should be expressed not only at such difficult moments but every day in our fight for gay equality. I think this media and international attention saved me then.

DV: What do you hope to accomplish with this visit to the United States?

Alekseev: In short, I’d like to give people a message that wherever they are, they can make a change.

It’s not about supporting a cause by giving money. I don’t come here for that. I don’t need financial support. I have food at home and I don’t need to get paid for the ideal I pursue.

I’d like to explain to people that if all of them stand at the same time, they can really achieve something. American activists are often seen overseas as being self-centered and not interested in international issues. Perhaps this has to do with a fear of being seen as too colonialist.

You know, if 1,000 Americans sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her trip to Russia in 2009, I doubt she would have quietly dedicated a statue to an American gay poet hand-in-hand with the homophobic then-mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov.

That was very close to the place where weeks before we were arrested for trying to stage our fourth Pride. She made a very good advertisement for him, which was used against us at that time by his PR team. She did not challenge him on his homophobia while she said she cares for LGBT rights and wants to put it forward in her diplomacy. I saw how she cared.

This should not repeat in Russia or elsewhere. I know some usually say “We cannot care for all the world,” but often it’s the same people who care for nobody! When you want to change things, you don’t pick and choose usually. You just follow your instinct.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 25, 2011.

—  John Wright