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For Gays, a Loud New Foe

Sacramento's large enclave of immigrant Slavic evangelicals is becoming a force on social issues. Their actions shock many.

October 13, 2006|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Organizers of the annual Rainbow Festival were prepared for trouble.

The Q Crew, a local "queer/straight alliance," distributed cards telling people what to do if approached by hostile demonstrators. Sympathetic local church groups formed a protective buffer along the festival ground's cyclone fence. Mounted police were on patrol.

Jerry Sloan manned a table for Stand Up for Sacramento, a recently formed gay self-defense organization.

"So far, so good," he said. "No Russians."

The festival, held last month amid the gay bars, restaurants and shops of midtown's "Lavender Heights" neighborhood, went off without conflict. But the elaborate security preparations reflected growing tensions between Sacramento gays and the city's large and vociferous community of fundamentalist Christians from the former Soviet Union.

Over the last 18 months, Sacramento Russian-language church members have picketed gay pride events, jammed into legislative committee meetings when gay issues were on the agenda and demonstrated at school board meetings.

Incited by firebrand Russian Pentacostal pastors and polemical Russian-language newspapers, the fundamentalists turn out en masse for state Capitol protest rallies.

Last June, urging readers to attend a massive rally, the Russian newspaper the Speaker told them:

"Make a choice. It's your decision. Homosexuality is knocking on your doors and asking: 'Can I make your son gay and your daughter lesbian?' "

In most instances, the Russian-speaking demonstrators far outnumber representatives from all other anti-gay groups combined. Anti-homosexual rallies that a few years ago attracted a few dozen participants now regularly draw hundreds and sometimes thousands, many with a heavy Russian accent.

Even in a state capital where impassioned public demonstrations are a daily event, the Slavic fundamentalists stand out. Elderly women in babushkas stand next to small children carrying signs stating: "Perversion is Never Safe" and "I Am Not Learning About Gay People."

Speakers address the crowds fervently in Russian and Ukrainian.

After a wave of religious refugees that began coming here in the late 1980s, Sacramento now has one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in North America: an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Slavic immigrants, community members say. They came primarily from the Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and the other southern Soviet republics, and settled mostly in Sacramento's northern and western suburbs.

These immigrants are different from their Russian-speaking counterparts in New York's Brighton Beach, San Francisco's Richmond district or West Hollywood, all established Russian-immigrant enclaves that are mostly Jewish or Russian Orthodox and generally coexist with large gay populations.

West Hollywood's 11-member Russian Advisory Board recently voted 8 to 3 to send a letter to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkov, asking him to reconsider his decision banning gay pride events in the Russian capital.

"We want you to consider the unique partnership that has developed here in West Hollywood between the large population of Russian-speaking immigrants and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community," the letter said.

The Sacramento community, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly evangelical -- Baptist and Pentecostalist. The charismatic Pentacostal church, introduced in the Ukraine in the 1920s by missionary and martyr Ivan Efimovich Vornaev, includes speaking in tongues and washing of feet. The churches' social views are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

"The main issues in the Russian community here," said Vitaly Prokopchuk, a Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, "are gay issues, abortion issues and family-definition issues. To these people, these issues are very cut-and-dry in the Bible."

Sacramento has more than 70 Russian fundamentalist congregations. One of them, Bethany Missionary Slavic Church, has 3,200 members and claims to be the largest Russian-language church outside of Europe.

"Sacramento is the No. 1 gathering place for non-Jewish, non-Russian Orthodox, fundamentalist Russian and Ukrainian immigrants," said University of Oregon geographer Susan W. Hardwick, an expert on the Russian immigrant community. Similar but smaller communities, Hardwick said, have established themselves in Portland and Seattle, where they also are beginning to flex their political muscle.

But nowhere approaches Sacramento, which has a 24-hour Russian-language cable television station, two radio stations and several newspapers, all of which push a conservative message marked by strident opposition to homosexuality. A recent edition of the Speaker, for example, promoted a book, "The Pink Swastika," that contends that the extermination of Jews during World War II was the work of homosexuals inside the Nazi Party.

For Sacramento gay leaders, the sudden appearance of organized demonstrators was a major shock after years of building support in the state capital.

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