LGBTs Protest Pro-Putin Russian Church

by David-Elijah Nahmod
Saturday Aug 31, 2013

A protest outside a Russian Orthodox Church in the Castro last weekend went on as planned, but activists found the church closed, locked, and empty despite timing the demonstration to the end of Sunday worship services.

According to one protester, San Francisco police and advance media notice had the congregation leaving the building at 9:30 a.m., well before the 11 a.m. action Sunday, August 25.

"Eleven o'clock is when they usually let out," protester Mike Hoban told the Bay Area Reporter. "What apparently happened is that the congregation got into cars and left at 9:30 a.m. The press and the police were appraised of our action - we were told this by a gay neighbor."

Two police officers stationed across the street from St. Nicholas Cathedral, 2005 15th Street, told the B.A.R. that they had no knowledge of the church receiving a warning about the protest.

San Francisco Police Department spokesman Officer Albie Esparza did not return calls seeking comment.

According to a post by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, it was local church officials who gave police notice of the planned action, after reading about it on blogs. Church officials also informed Sergei Petrov, consul general of the Russian Federation in San Francisco.

The post went on to say that church members responded to the protest with a joint prayer.

The demonstration outside St. Nicholas was the latest local action in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's signing an anti-gay propaganda bill into law. The law includes stiff fines and jail time for Russian citizens and others in the country who "propagate" homosexuality to minors. This could include hand-holding and other public displays of affection, and broadcasting positive news stories about LGBT people. Putin claims that he's not homophobic, and that the law is meant to "protect children."

About 25 LGBT activists staged the peaceful protest, which was organized by Gays Without Borders and

St. Nicholas Cathedral is under the control of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia who has close ties to Putin. According to its website, Kirill appointed Father Leonid Kazakov of the St. Petersburg Diocese to lead the San Francisco church in 2010.

Michael Petrelis, of Gays Without Borders, told the B.A.R. that the information about the congregation's early departure came from a man named John who lives "either up the block from the church or around the corner on Sharon Street."

The action went forward, with a number of people stating that such demonstrations, when covered by the media, would raise public awareness of the situation in Russia.

A gentleman in a white shirt could be seen hovering near the front door of the church, speaking in Russian into a cell phone. He also aggressively photographed the protesters. When asked if he was affiliated with the church, he turned away and did not respond.

"We will now observe a moment of silence for all the victims of anti-gay violence in Russia," said Petrelis. "We will turn our backs on the church to oppose their silence."

Gays Without Borders' Melanie Nathan said, "The church is our neighbor, and we welcome them. But we urge them to speak out against the oppression of their own LGBT people."

Don Massey explained why he was attending the protest.

"I've been trying to get people to write letters about what's going on in Russia," he told the B.A.R. "When you're doing it on your own it feels like an uphill battle, so it's an inspiration to hear that other people care about the same thing you do."

As Massey spoke, a voice from across the street could be heard shouting, "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Stoli vodka has got to go!" Chris Powers repeated the chant several times from his second floor window across the street from the church.

Robbie Sweeny, of the dump vodka website, addressed the importance of honoring the Stoli boycott, which has waned in San Francisco. Stoli's parent company, SPI Group, has released an open letter claiming its support for the LGBT community. The company holds an annual Stoli Guy competition, which is run by its LGBT liaison, Patrik Gallineaux. The Stoli Guy contest was held in San Francisco earlier this month.

"Stoli has not tried to help any gay rights groups in Russia," Sweeny said. "Nor has it released any statements in Russia, only here, where it is easy to do, where its bread is buttered. If Stoli is a true supporter of gay rights and not just manipulating our viewpoint of them for sales, then it would help the cause when and where it is a little less popular."

Gallineaux, who was not present at the protest, has referred to himself as "half a drag queen." He says that Stoli executives have been nothing but supportive of him and of the community.

In his own open letter, Gallineaux said, "While most people have good intentions, boycotting Stoli outside of Russia and certainly in the United States would most likely hurt the very people such an action is intended to help."

"It's good for readers to hear both sides of the argument," said Sweeny. "And perhaps to take what Patrik says with a grain of salt, seeing as he is an employee of Stoli. Of course he is going to give an interview that is biased toward Stoli." (An interview with Gallineaux appears in the September edition of the B.A.R.'s nightlife magazine BARtab.)

As the demonstration wound down, protesters sang a rousing chorus of "Over the Rainbow." They vowed to continue to fight for the lives of LGBT Russians.

Church Officials Silent

On Monday, August 26, the B.A.R. phoned Saint Nicholas' office. The woman who answered the phone hung up without a word as soon as the reporter said, "Bay Area Reporter."

The B.A.R. then put in calls to two other Russian Orthodox churches in San Francisco to ask them for a comment on the plight of the Russian LGBT community.

A man who answered the phone at Holy Virgin Cathedral, 6210 Geary Boulevard, said, "I can't talk to you now," then hung up.

A woman answered the phone at Saint Sergius of Radonezh, 1346 12th Avenue. "We don't have a gay community here," she said. "Thank you for calling." She also hung up.

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