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Clash of convictions

Slavic immigrants' crusade against homosexuality collides with gays' battle for acceptance, equal rights

By Dorothy Korber and Deepa RanganathanThe Sacramento Bee, August 6, 2006

Thousands of religious refugees mass in the streets of Sacramento to shout "Shame!" Their targets, with their own history of persecution still fresh and raw, retort: "Go back to Russia!"

How did it come to this?

In the last few months, the growing conflict between Sacramento's Slavic Christians and its politically savvy gay community has erupted on campuses, at school board hearings, and on the grounds of the Capitol.

Russian-speaking hecklers lined the march of this year's gay pride parade downtown. At least 15 Slavic students were suspended in April for wearing shirts proclaiming, "Homosexuality is sin." This spring, Slavic Christians packed board meetings in three local school districts to make their position clear: Being gay is not OK.

Gays are starting to respond in kind. A dozen staged a counterprotest in July, demonstrating outside the region's largest evangelical Slavic church during Sunday morning services.

Gays say the Slavic protesters have hit them with signs, spit on them and displayed a menacing lack of civility. Gay leaders have met with local police and press to say they're worried about violence, and now they're forming a "Q Crew" -- a new political activism group -- to tell the public their fears.

"They're more and more brazen with their signs and their numbers," said Tina Reynolds, a lesbian activist and owner of a gallery in downtown Sacramento. "It's much more in our face, and I'm beginning to feel like something's going to happen."

Beyond the surface animosity, this is a collision of two powerful forces: a deeply held religious conviction and the determined march of homosexuals toward equal rights.

The region's large Russian-speaking Christian community, usually shy of publicity, is stepping into the public eye, saying they have to save California from a dangerous moral decline. Gay leaders worry that these protests will erode their community's political progress and spoil the security they have come to feel in Sacramento.

Free speech or hate speech?
The evangelical Slavs, refugees who fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, are finally hitting their stride in the land of the free. They came for the freedom to worship. Now they say they're exercising the freedom of speech to spread a fundamental belief: Homosexuality is a sin and a choice.

"We have tasted the power of democracy -- now we go and protest," said George Neverov, a Baptist who emigrated from Uzbekistan in 1991 and lives in Carmichael. The father of three young daughters, he is a vocal opponent of any endorsement of homosexuality in the public schools.

"Am I against tolerance?" said Neverov, 33. "God forbid, no. But my whole belief system is based on the Bible. I say homosexuality is a sin. Why are you offended by that?"

Gay activists contend that this sentiment, when aggressively expressed in public protests, is nothing less than hate speech. The demonstrations seem suffused with a frightening rage, they say.

"At their protests, it's all about God, burning in hell and sodomy," said Darrick Lawson, president of Sacramento's Stonewall Democratic Club, a gay political organization. "They want to use their rights and freedoms to suppress another community. It goes against the reasons they moved here. The Bible never taught this kind of hatred."

Lawson, himself the son of an evangelical pastor, spent nearly three years in therapy trying to overcome his own homosexuality before accepting it.

"We have no problem with them saying this in their churches," Lawson said. "Do I want to ban them from Gay Pride? No. I don't. In no way do I want to infringe upon the right they came here for. But they need to consider our safety and play by the rules."

These refugees say they understand rules. They fled from an officially atheistic society where the rules discriminated against the religious. People of faith sometimes were imprisoned, their children wrenched from them, their careers stalled.

Some harbor memories of a grandfather executed, a grandmother who died in jail.

Community leaders estimate 100,000 Russian-speaking residents live in the Sacramento region, about a third of them evangelical Christians. Mostly Ukrainian Baptists or Pentecostals, many came here in recent decades believing the United States was a Christian nation -- a place where their literal interpretation of the Bible would be the rule.

Instead, they landed in freewheeling California and encountered a culture of widespread divorce, premarital sex, and -- almost unheard of in their home countries -- open homosexuality.

Political clout downplayed
Even more offensive to them is the increasingly strong push by gay leaders to bring acceptance of homosexuality into public life and public schools.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, the Legislature's first openly lesbian member, has spent her political career fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She has little patience for the anti-gay feelings of these immigrants.

"This kind of aggressive homophobia is nothing new," said the senator, a Democrat from Santa Monica. "This is just one in a long line of communities who have become convinced that they have a moral obligation to discriminate."

One of Kuehl's bills, Senate Bill 1437, has aroused special consternation among the Slavic Christians. As drafted, the bill would require the public school curriculum to note the contributions of gays and lesbians to society.

Conservative Christian groups across the state -- as well as several mainstream newspapers and the governor -- have criticized the bill. But Sacramento's Slavs are its most visible opponents.

On June 12, whole families showed up at the Capitol to demonstrate against SB 1437 and other pro-gay bills. One little girl held up a sign that said "Homosexuals Do Not Touch My Kids." A young boy waved a hand-painted message: "I'm NOT learning about gay people."

Kuehl downplays the Slavs' political clout, saying they are puppets of the right who are not taken seriously by the Legislature. But one of her staunchest opponents, conservative lobbyist Randy Thomasson, gives them a lot more credit.

"When it comes to parental rights and family values, Russia may just save California," said Thomasson, president of the Sacramento-based Campaign for Children and Families.

Thomasson notes that the Slavs are fast becoming citizens, registering to vote and learning how to make themselves heard. He credits them for playing a major role in gaining Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pledge to veto SB 1437.

Bible believed absolutely
The power and size of Sacramento's Slavic evangelical community is evident any Sunday morning at 75 churches across the region.

At the Russian Baptist Church of West Sacramento, a Sabbath service fills the huge nave with 2,000 worshippers. The two-hour service rings with music -- trumpet, grand piano, organ and hundreds of sweet voices. Headsets translate the sermons and prayers into English.

On one recent Sunday, a young couple, married here one year before, kneel before the congregation to present their baby, Victoria. Tears stream down the young mother's face. In the pews, children sit quietly beside their parents, barely fidgeting.

The décor is simple, but bold stained-glass windows bathe the room in blocks of primary colors. At the end of the service, Pastor Paul Khakimov reads individual prayer requests: peace in Israel, safe flights, help in finding a job, that a daughter be protected from bad influences.

In an interview, Khakimov explained what their faith means to this community.

"Religion is our life, it's not just words," he said through a translator. He said he believes the Bible is absolutely, literally true.

"Our people suffered for their Bible teaching -- they were put in jail just for following the Bible," the pastor said.

As for gays, he cites from memory several Bible verses he says declare homosexuality to be a sin, but adds: "First of all, we don't hate them. We pray for them. They are also people. They are sinners and they need help. This is like any other sin."

His community has rallied against gay issues, he said, because gay advocates are making political inroads. If Christians don't defend their beliefs, he said, God will rain down wrath as he did on Sodom.

A familiar refrain for gays
This is a tenet of faith that Darrick Lawson has heard all his life.

"My father is an evangelical minister," said Lawson, who is 39 and came out as a homosexual a decade ago. "I have personally fought this battle a long time."

Sitting in the cozy surroundings of his midtown chiropractic office, Lawson spoke of the heartache he experienced as the gay son in an evangelical Christian family.

"Growing up in a Christian household, I know that people have their opinions. They think we're all pedophiles. They think we're promiscuous. … I didn't come out till I was 28, I was so scared. For every person from my Christian world, it took a while to accept me. It took my dad an incredibly long time."

Lawson said he is living proof that being gay is not an option but an orientation he was born with. "The 'choice' thing cracks me up," he said. "I wanted to be straight. I went to 2 1/2 years of therapy. It did not work."

Now comfortable with his identity, he has his own message for the Christian fundamentalists: "Frankly, I refuse to go back in my closet or tolerate misbehavior because they have a cultural issue. Honestly, they need to get over it."

That message doesn't play well with people who have clung to their beliefs in the face of imprisonment or death. One young protester, Nadiya Chorney, will tell you her grandmother was tortured and died in jail.

"People were coming and searching our house during the night," said Chorney, the daughter of a Baptist pastor. "A couple times, they tried to kill my father." The family fled Ukraine two years ago and Chorney, now 18, enrolled at Sacramento's Mira Loma High School.

She was a vocal leader in the protests that followed the annual Day of Silence in April, a nationwide event during which students support their gay and lesbian peers. A number of Slavic teens were suspended from area schools for wearing T-shirts declaring that "Homosexuality is sin" and "Jesus can set you free."

"We were sharing the Gospel," Chorney said. "Not because we hate them, but we want to warn them that homosexuality can be cured."

About 100 people, Russian-speaking adults and children, picketed Mira Loma for days afterward to protest the suspensions. The words "persecution" and "First Amendment" flew through the crowd.

Local educators said any shirt that sends a negative message about a particular group isn't allowed in school.

"If you had the words 'football player' or the word 'Slavic' or 'cheerleader' or any other name, and then you put that inside a red circle with a line through it, you are (against) a person or a group," said Oakmont High School Principal Kathleen Sirovy, who suspended 13 Slavic students.

Because it took place in schools, the very concept of the Day of Silence touched a nerve in the Slavic Christian community.

Jade Baranski, a 20-year-old lesbian who lives in midtown Sacramento, was present when the Sacramento City Unified School District board voted in April to support the Day of Silence. Hundreds attended the meeting to speak on both sides of the issue; many Slavic parents urged the board to vote no.

As Baranski and some friends celebrated outside the board room, "these two older (Slavic) women, probably in their 50s or 60s, turned to us and, puh" -- Baranski mimed spitting -- "right at our feet. It was atrocious."

She said she experienced a similar shock at the June protest spurred by the Kuehl legislation. She and a friend, she said, were encircled by Slavic men and women who stood inches away screaming at them for committing "sodomy."

"I was shaking. I was walking away thinking, 'If anyone is going to hurt me, it's going to be someone from this community,' " she said.

Disturbing epithets
Darrell Steinberg witnessed the culture clash firsthand in June, when he rode as a dignitary in the city's annual gay pride parade. A longtime political figure in Sacramento and Democratic nominee for state Senate, Steinberg is known as a town mediator. He says he was concerned by the attitude of the Slavic protesters who picketed the parade.

"There were some epithets used -- well, I was shocked, and I was disturbed," Steinberg said. "I believe strongly that this issue should be a real concern to the community. We have a history in this community of hate crimes. Given our history, it is essential that we use our past experience to educate people -- especially new immigrants -- that we are one."

As a gay leader, Darrick Lawson said he is looking for points of connection with the Slavic community. Already, he said, quiet inroads have been made.

"Our alliances need to meet with their alliances," he said. "It's a matter of time. They will get it eventually -- that we can respect each other while disagreeing. It will trickle down as we get to know their leaders, and as their own children grow up and some come out as gay."

For his part, George Neverov is willing to tone down the debate by asking young Slavic Christians to be less confrontational.

"People screaming 'Shame' -- I will teach them not to do that and not to react to gays." He paused, then spoke of how he loves his new country. "There's a lot to learn from Americans as a people. There is acceptance."

There is, however, a line he will not cross.

"Live your lifestyle, do whatever you want to do in your bedroom," Neverov said. "But if you think we will ever agree with the homosexual lifestyle -- that will not happen."

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