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Gays fear an influx of hate

Slaying raises tension between homosexuals and the Sacramento area's growing Slavic evangelical ranks.

March 16, 2008|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

FOLSOM, CALIF. — One punch was all it took. One punch to forever divide. One punch to kill a young man.

On a hot summer afternoon along a placid lakefront in the Sacramento suburbs, Satender Singh had come with a group of fellow Fijians to celebrate his promotion at an AT&T call center. Three married couples and Singh, a lighthearted 26-year-old, drank and hooted and danced a crazy conga line to East Indian music.

An innocent outing? Not in the eyes of the Russian family a few picnic tables away.

Andrey Vusik, 29, fresh from morning church services with his young children in tow, stared with disgust as Singh danced and hugged the other men while their wives giggled. To the Russian, Singh seemed rude and inappropriate, a gay man putting on an outrageous public display.

Angry stares led to an afternoon of traded insults. As the long day slid toward dusk, the tall Russian immigrant approached with a friend to demand an apology. Singh refused. Vusik threw a single punch.

Singh's head smacked into a concrete walkway. The joyful young man with the musical laugh died four days later of brain injuries.

Now, half a year after that angry Sunday afternoon at Lake Natoma, 15 miles east of the state Capitol, the case remains anything but resolved.

Vusik, a father of three, fled the U.S. and remains a fugitive, charged with involuntary manslaughter. Authorities suspect he is on the run in Russia, and the FBI has joined the hunt. Meanwhile, a young friend of Vusik -- Alex Shevchenko -- faces trial next month on hate-crime http, accused of helping to inflame the confrontation last July 1 and then hurling a bottle as he fled.

The tragedy has exacerbated tensions between Sacramento's gay community and the region's booming population of Slavic evangelical Christians, whose most vocal congregants in recent years have mobilized on the streets and statehouse steps to protest homosexuality.

Shevchenko did not throw a punch, but he could face three years behind bars if convicted. Slavic leaders say the 21-year-old is being scapegoated. They say an isolated tragedy is being used to ostracize their community of refugees from the former Soviet Union.

"This was not a hate crime; this was a street fight," said Roman Romasco, executive director of the Slavic Assistance Center in Sacramento. "From a street fight, they try to make a big case. From a little spark, they try to make a big fire. But you cannot blame the whole community over this."

Gay rights activists in Sacramento, which has one of the larger per capita gay populations in the U.S., believe Singh's death is the inevitable result of an organized campaign of homophobia imported from the old Soviet republics.

"The roots of what these guys did to Satender Singh can be traced to what's being preached in their churches," said Jerry Sloan, founder of Project Tocsin, a Sacramento-based group that monitors the religious right. "Some sitting in those pews believe they've heard it straight from God: that homosexuality is an abomination."

With as many as 100,000 newcomers from republics such as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, the Sacramento region has one of the nation's largest concentrations of Soviet immigrants. Most began arriving in the late 1980s -- about a third of them conservative evangelical Christians seeking religious freedom.

The influx has created a thriving Russian community with Russian-language newspapers, cable TV and radio shows, as well as 70 Slavic churches -- nearly all adherents of a fundamentalist creed that condemns homosexuality.

Those beliefs, preached from the pulpit and voiced in Russian-language media, did not attract much attention until 2005, when a vocal crowd of Slavic evangelicals mounted a protest at the state Capitol against same-sex marriage.

In the years since, they have become the most aggressive anti-gay contingent in the region. Holding signs and wearing T-shirts proclaiming "Sodomy is a Sin," they have mounted protests against state legislation, rallied at school board meetings and picketed fundraisers for politicians backed by gay-rights groups.

Sometimes their protests have taken a more personal tack.

Nathan Feldman, 30, said Slavic protesters have shoved him and spit on him at gay-pride events. Feldman said he lost his job at a jewelry store after a Ukrainian co-worker discovered he was gay and lied to get him fired. That wasn't all. A vandal scrawled graffiti on a trash dumpster outside his apartment: "Nathan Feldman, Die for AIDS."

"All of this has been going on way before Satender was killed," said Feldman, now a reporter for a gay-focused cable news show.

Local politicians have warned Slavic churches to tone down the rhetoric. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a newspaper opinion piece that "radical fundamentalists" have pinned a bull's-eye on the gay community. "Tragically now, the threat of violence has become reality, as manifested in this murder."

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