Published Date Written by David Carkhuff
A note of hope against a backdrop of struggle. This was the impression offered by a pair of coordinators from a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT organization from Greater Portland's Russian sister city of Archangel.
Lyudmila Romodina, coordinator of the Parent Club for "Rakurs" ("Perspective" in Russian), said reaction to the situation in her home city of Archangel (population 390 000) in Northwestern Russia often is dismay and disbelief as she and another group representative visited Portland.
"They tell us about the conditions now, and they say that Russia is 30 years behind the U.S. in that regard," Romodina said of the impressions of hosts and colleagues on the group's trip to Maine about the climate of fear regarding homosexuality in their part of Russia.
"They understand where we are, in Archangel, of course, it's horrible, but looking at where you are now in the U.S. we're convinced that in 30 years we will have it better, hopefully as good as you have it now," Romodina said.
Activists hope it won't take 30 years.
Innokenty Grekov ("Kes") interpreter and representative of Human Rights First of New York City, the organization that arranged for the Rakurs trip to the United States, said Archangel — also called Arkhangelsk — has become known as a pioneer of "anti-LGBT laws" which preceded "nation-wide enactment" of similar laws against homosexuality in Russia. Greater Portland communities and the city of Archangel are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their sister city relationship later this month. Calls for boycotts of the Olympics in Russia and calls for severing sister city relationships prompted Human Rights First to promote a different message.
"We've decided to use this opportunity to offer another message," Grekov said. "Russian LGBT groups and Human Rights First do not support a boycott, and we also want to use sister city partnerships to both highlight the concerns of LGBT communities in Russia and to build a dialogue in Russia between LGBT groups like Rakurs and their municipal authorities, some of whom will be coming here later this month."
The goal is communication. "We don't want the two countries to be antagonizing each other," he said.
Yet Romodina and fellow club coordinator Oleg Klyuenkov described a desperate climate in their home city, where homosexuals or LGBT advocates can face loss of their livelihoods, physical abuse and other repercussions for speaking out.
Klyuenkov and Romodina sat down with The Portland Daily Sun on Sunday and talked about their efforts, using Grekov as their interpreter.
Klyuenkov, coordinator of the monitoring program for Rakurs, said he is mindful of the risks he runs by participating in the trip to Portland.
"In the future the pressure on LGBT groups will increase, and it's possible I will lose my job," Klyuenkov said. "I've thought about that, I've considered it. I'm morally preparing myself for that to happen."
Several teachers have been laid off as a result of their viewpoints, he said.
As an example, a school psychiatrist could face repercussions for expressing that homosexuality is normal, Klyuenkov said.
Some LGBT activists in Russia have been subjected to physical violence also, it's not exclusively LGBT activists but also independent journalists, he noted.
Asked what people in Portland can do, Klyuenkov said, "When they host this official delegation from Russia, they can raise LGBT issues, LGBT concerns ... with the official delegation, and they can also inquire what is the dialogue between the municipal authorities in Archangel and organizations and groups like Rakurs, what is the state of that dialogue."
Klyuenkov said, "We think that the sister city partnership is a good platform for that conversation."
Rakurs is the first non-governmental organization in the Archangel region dedicated to LGBT-community activity. The organization was founded on Oct. 4, 2007. The mission includes promoting ways to "overcome discrimination and recognition of human dignity, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, through the dissemination of information on the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity, providing psychological and legal services to the LGBT community."
"Our main problem right now is we're simply ignored by the municipal authorities and the regional authorities," Klyuenkov said.
"As more of your states move toward marriage equality and toward nondiscrimination, including nondiscrimination toward LGBT people, homophobia in our society, in Russia, is unfortunately growing," he said. "The question that the Portland authorities should be asking is how can we be working with our counterparts in Russia when we're so far apart on this issue."
Romodina said the parents club works one on one "offering psychological help and assistance to parents, to children who are LGBT, and to friends and acquaintances."
Often, people who are "still in the closet" will receive help at their homes, she said.
Romodina said, "We are working to prevent negative attitudes and discrimination within the family, in relationships between the parents and the children."
Klyuenkov said, "In the U.S., civil society is very strong."
"If you take the '90s in Russia, the Russian people after the Cold War were really inspired by the United States. ... But now all of this enthusiasm is virtually nonexistent."
Grekov said even as the U.S. reputation has been damaged abroad, it's important for LGBT activists from Russia to be able to study the civil society here and find ways to improve the situation in their country.
Groundwork: Building Portland/Arkhangelsk's LGBT Connections: SPACE gallery will host a free public meeting with Lyudmila Romodina and Oleg Klyuenkov of "Rakurs" ("Perspective" in Russian) on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. "November marks the 25th anniversary of Portland's sister city relationship with Arkhangelsk, Russia. In light of the controversial, recently passed anti-LGBT laws in the country, two members of Perspective, a multi-faceted LGBT organization based in Arkhangelsk, are visiting the U.S. (first stop: Portland) to share their ongoing work and the serious consequences of such discriminatory legislation, which has been in place in Arkhangelsk for years prior to the nationwide crackdown. Join Maine ACLU, Human Rights First, Equality Maine, OutRight Perspective and others for a public presentation and discussion, with special focus on the challenges facing LGBT youth, to look towards a supportive future for all." For details, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/581237658596882 or http://www.space538.org.