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Lonely crusader of the Urals. Russian champion of same-sex marriage fighting an uphill battle


Ed Mishin, head of the Russian National GLBT Center Together and Eduard Murzin, Russian Deputy

Russian Deputy Edvard Murzin and Ed Mishin, director of "Together", Russia's largest gay-rights group

2006/02/16. Perhaps the best illustration of the hopelessness of Russia's gay-marriage campaign happened on a dry, warm day in early August, when Edvard Murzin, a member of parliament in the republic of Bashkortostan, stood outside a maternity ward and talked to journalists about the birth of his baby girl.

The reporters were curious about his daughter's birth, broadcasting her weight and height, because it was newsworthy that a politician who does something as outlandish as promoting gay rights could have a wife and a healthy child.

Many people in Ufa, about 1,300 kilometres east of Moscow, assumed that Mr. Murzin must be gay because of his political stand. One newspaper reported, "Those who saw the happy father with a bouquet of flowers had no more doubts."

Mr. Murzin is the only politician in Russia who openly champions the idea of same-sex matrimony, but instead of defending the concept he usually ends up defending himself: his reputation as a politician, his small business and even his truthfulness about his sexuality.

His long fight for same-sex marriage laws in Russia has failed so badly that his story is almost farcical.

Prominent gay-rights activists say his mission is doomed. Even among his friends in Ufa's small gay community, the drag queens shake their heads sadly when asked about his efforts.

His failure shows how Russian attitudes about homosexuality have barely improved since the Soviet laws forbidding gay sex were abolished in 1993. If anything, the Kremlin's embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church as a pillar of state has made life even more difficult for gay-rights campaigners.

"Lately, the Orthodox clerics launch more and more attacks against sexual minorities on television, preaching intolerance in the society," said Ed Mishin, director of Together, Russia's largest gay-rights group. "The state, although officially secular, nevertheless follows the church officials' recommendations, so we can take this as unofficial support of an aggressive attitude toward gays and lesbians."

Mr. Murzin launched his quixotic campaign two years ago, shortly after winning election to the regional legislature in Bashkortostan, a semi-autonomous republic in the shadow of the Ural Mountains. He was already well known as publisher of a local newspaper in his town, 300 kilometres southwest of Ufa, and his successful election campaign focused on his interest in human rights.

After taking office, a gay couple approached him. "They said, 'We voted for you. Why don't you protect our rights?' " Mr. Murzin said.

Ed Mishin, head of the Russian National GLBT Center Together and Eduard Murzin, Russian Deputy

January 18, 2005. Edvard Murzin and Ed Mishin have filed for a marriage certificate from a Moscow registration office

It was an unusual idea in Russia, and even more unusual in a rural area with a large Muslim population. In the Soviet Union, gay sex was a crime punishable by five years of hard labour, and those laws weren't repealed until 1993.

Two previous attempts at promoting same-sex marriage in Russia ended quickly. A poet's application to marry his partner was rejected in 1994, and he later received death threats and was prosecuted on charges of "malicious hooliganism" for writing about homosexuality. Another gay couple tried to marry at a church in Nizhny Novgorod two years ago, but the Russian Orthodox priest who conducted the ceremony was defrocked and the marriage annulled.

Mr. Murzin wanted to pursue the issue through the legislature and courts. He drafted a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, but it died in committee before reaching parliament. He applied to the Moscow city court, the Moscow district court, the Russian supreme court, and finally Russia's constitutional court. Each one denied the application or refused to hear the case. He has filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights, but it has yet to respond.

His campaign earned him media attention, mostly as an oddity, and made him a notorious figure in his hometown.

Most members of parliament in Bashkortostan are officially unpaid, so Mr. Murzin, 42, depends on the equivalent of $245, the monthly profit from his newspaper. Those profits have been squeezed after 10 per cent of his advertisers pulled out because of his campaign.

"Financially, it's pretty hard for me," he said. "We scrape a living here and there. But I want my children to live in a free and good society."

In Moscow, Mr. Mishin says the regional parliamentarian's actions are brave but the law won't change in his lifetime.Still, the consensus among a recent gathering of young gay men at an apartment in Ufa was that life is slowly getting better for homosexuals.

The small improvements aren't measured in terms of official, legal acceptance but according to how much they must keep their lives secret. Mr. Semyonov doesn't hold hands with his boyfriend in public for fear of getting beaten, but in September he got a chance to put on women's clothing and perform in front of a large audience at a gay-friendly party in Ufa as his alter ego, Olga Wundersex.

Ms. Wundersex, wearing a giant wig, feather boa and spiked leather collar, lip-synched onstage.

A man was overheard in the audience complaining, "Look how many gays came tonight!"

Somebody replied, "Oh, shut up."

Graema Smith, Globeandmail.Com

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