Friday, February 25, 2011

Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev, begins tour in the United States

Nikolai Alekseev, Founder of
by Joseph Erbentraut

When one thinks of Russia, the iconic Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow to the Bolshoi ballet and the James Bond classic film From Russia With Love spring to mind. Underneath our hazy, romanticized perception of Russian life, however, lays a stifling environment that threatens the ability for LGBT people to assemble publicly.

This is a reality with which activist Nikolai Alekseev is all too familiar. As one of the country’s most prominent LGBT organizers and founder of, Alekseev has been on the front line of efforts to organize Moscow Pride since 2005.

Locking horns with then-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who has condemned Pride events as "Satanic" and part of "a deadly moral poison for children," Alekseev and other organizers have seen their demonstrations banned every year. Activists-including British activist Peter Tatchell and Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network-have also faced violent attacks from anti-gay rioters and arrests during their attempts to organize. Alekseev himself has been detained under mysterious circumstances, most recently in a Russian airport late last year.

Such news may be surprising to some gay Americans who have grown accustomed to this country’s raucous Pride season, but international pressure against Russia has increased. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last October that the Russian government had violated LGBT activists’ right to assemble peacefully in Pride events. Nevertheless, the government has appealed the court’s decision and Moscow’s newly appointed mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has said he would also oppose the event.

With the organizers’ latest attempt to hold a Pride demonstration set to take place May 28, Alekseev, 33, has launched a series of seven speaking engagements across the United States with the hopes of spurring on further awareness of the discrimination LGBT Russians face. The tour begins on Saturday, Feb. 26, in Chicago. And it will continue with stops in New York, Texas and California through the beginning of March.

LGBT Russians’ difficulties in holding peaceful Pride events are indicative of much larger human rights concerns they and other groups endure there, Alekseev told EDGE in an exclusive interview. While he anticipated the European Court of Human Rights will not accept the Russian government’s appeal, he said their opinion won’t change Sobyanin’s mind.

"In general, I don’t expect the Council of Europe to send the tanks to Moscow to make this Country finally respect the European Convention it ratified itself," he said. "But when you think about human rights in Russia, don’t think only about Gay Pride. Think about crimes in Chechnya, think about the invasion of Georgia, think about journalists being killed, think about opponents being jailed."

Alekseev’s foray into activism began in late 2001. While pursuing a post-graduate degree at Moscow State University, he attempted to submit a thesis on the discrimination LGBT Russians face. The university rejected Alekseev’s thesis on the basis of its subject matter. While homosexuality has been legal in Russia since 1993, the majority of Russians-one 2010 poll indicated 74 percent-considers it to be an either "morally dissolute" or mentally defective condition.

Such widespread opposition has not made it easy for Alekseev, who said he regularly receives threats of violence. But he has chosen to go forward with the cause and said he will not back down with his demands, even when other queer Russian activists criticize him as too aggressive.

"Like many others everywhere in the world, I know that the path I follow is not the safest," said Alekseev. "Those who know me a bit know that I am a boiling personality. I can’t stand injustice. I can’t stand hypocrisy. I am a very demanding person, as much as from my enemies than from my close friends. Don’t promise me something you cannot give me. Don’t tell me yes if finally you don’t deliver."

While admitting that many Western LGBT people are not well-informed about the queer Russian struggle, he described their challenges as only "a drop in the ocean" of the problems facing many groups of people around the world. Alekseev has a deeper issue with the lack of American diplomatic response to abuses of power that have taken place on Russian soil.

He said neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor President Obama have acknowledged LGBT Russians’ plight. And Clinton’s omission of LGBT issues when she inaugurated a statue of American gay poet Walt Whitman at Moscow State University in Oct. 2009 struck Alekseev as particularly bizarre.

"It took place on the same square where we were all arrested for trying to stage our Pride just three weeks before," noted Alekseev. "The U.S. embassy could not ignore it. A U.S. citizen was arrested as well. How many people in America complained about that? How many people in America wrote to Clinton to tell her that this behavior is totally unacceptable for someone who shouted everywhere that she supports gay rights."

Obama’s meeting with human rights activists in July 2009 also neglected to mention the country’s gays and lesbians.

"We were completely excluded from the meeting that he had with human rights activists," added Alekseev. "What does that mean? Gay rights are not human rights? Well, that’s the message that Obama gave in Russia."

Rather than asking for solidarity or money from LGBT Americans, Alekseev said he hoped broader awareness of queer Russian activists’ plight will help to encourage them to respond to human rights abuses that continue to take place around the world. "I don’t think it’s about expressing solidarity with Russians," he said. "I think it’s about standing up regularly for all those who need support. It’s about being less self -centered. It’s about taking some of your time and trying to make a change either by supporting activists in the field, by going and meeting them or raising support, doing actions or asking the government to move and to include such issues in the foreign diplomacy."

Log onto for more information on Alekseev’s upcoming tour.

Joseph Erbentraut's story is from

Related news:

About Nikolai's USA Tour:
Nikolai Speaking in Chicago: Russian Gay leader speaking at Merlo Library (2/26 at 2 PM)
California Itinerary: Russia's foremost LGBT leader Nikolai Alekseev appearing in WeHo  (

Gays hope Euro verdict can help them take pride in Moscow by Nikolai Alekseev
Homophobia on the EU's doorstep by Nikolai Alekseev


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Exactly why DOMA is unconstitutional

by Geoffrey R. Stone

A central question in the legal debate over the constitutionality of laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians (such as the federal Defense of Marriage Act) turns on the appropriate standard a court should apply in deciding whether the government's interest in treating gays and lesbians differently from other Americans is sufficiently weighty to justify the discrimination.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall deny any person "the equal protection of the laws," is the relevant constitutional text. But what does it mean?

A simple interpretation might suggest that the government may never treat people differently. But that is an implausible understanding of the text. All laws treat people differently. Speed limit laws treat people who drive 75 miles per hour differently than those who drive 45 miles per hour. People who have gone to medical school can practice medicine; others cannot. Citizens can vote; aliens cannot. In-state college students pay a lower tuition than out-of-state college students. People over 65 receive certain benefits that are not available to people under 65. And so on.

Surely, the Equal Protection Clause cannot mean that all such laws are unconstitutional. Recognizing this, the Supreme Court has held that most laws that treat some people differently from others are constitutional if the difference in treatment rationally furthers a legitimate government interest. As illustrated by the examples noted above, almost all laws pass this test.

But this does not exhaust the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause. The primary goal of the Clause, which was enacted in the wake of the Civil War, was to prohibit laws that discriminate against African-Americans. To effectuate that purpose, the Supreme Court has held that laws that discriminate against African Americans violate the Equal Protection Clause unless they pass "heightened scrutiny" -- that is, unless the discrimination is necessary to further an important government interest.  Stone's DOMA article continues here.


Watch: Mormon Mom challenges followers of Jesus Christ to support same-sex marriage

Melanie, a married Mormon mother of five, a loyal member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and a self-described "disciple of Christ", made the following video in 2008 in reaction to the Mormon church's campaign to pass Proposition 8 and remove marriage rights from gay people.
After threats from church officials, she took it down, but this week reposted it.

Melanie writes:
I did not discuss the video with my local leaders before making it public, but they were directed to it by church headquarters. At the end of some very heart felt discussions, my speaking out with this video threatened my temple recommend and my calling, and I ultimately chose to take it down to protect my standing in the church.

I have lived to regret the decision. And so today, in honor of the Valentine legend and in support of the love that drives so many of us to share our lives with each other, I stand up once more in favor of marriage, all marriage, with my Prop 8 video.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Baha'is lobby U.S. commission to help them survive in Iran

Eric Marrapodi, CNN

It is a bad time to be a Baha'i in Iran, American adherents of the faith say.

The religion, founded in Iran in 1844, is now considered heretical by Iranian authorities. Its 300,000 adherents in the country "may face repression on the grounds of apostasy," according to the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

On Wednesday, Iraj Kamalabadi and other Baha'is came to Washington to tell the commission just how bad things are for his sister, Fariba Kamalabadi, and six others who have been imprisoned because of their faith since 2008.

Iraj Kamalabadi was born in Iran and came to the United States for college. He stayed in the U.S. after the Iranian revolution for fear of religious persecution in his homeland. Now he is petitioning his adopted home government to step up the pressure on Iranian authorities.

"Our hope is for the commission to continue to support this within their power and do whatever they could do to shed light on what's going on in Iran with the Baha'i community," he said.

Kamalabadi and others met with the commissioners and reporters to tell their story of how their family members who were Baha'i leaders were arrested, tried and imprisoned on what they called "trumped-up" charges of spying for the United States and Israel.

The Commission on International Religious Freedom is an arm of the federal government. Its commissioners are appointed by the White House and Congress and charged with reviewing violations of religious freedom abroad. They then make recommendations to the president and Congress.

"When the Iranian government brought these trumped-up charges of espionage and other so-called crimes against your brethren, we were outraged but we also were not surprised," said Leonard Leo, the commission chair. "The Iranian government has a horrific record of abusing human rights and in particular the religious freedoms of minorities in Iran and in particular the Baha'is."

Eric Marrapodi's story continues here....


Friday, February 11, 2011

‘Frightened, Demoralized, And Alone’ With Belarus’s KGB

By Alyaksandr Lyalikov
I don’t know how the KGB picked me out of the crowd.

Our first conversation took place after lunch on a Wednesday in late December in my office. That talk was civil enough. I didn’t hide the fact that I’d been on Independence Square in Minsk during the postelection protests earlier in the month. Eventually, the agent promised that if I'd admit everything honestly, they’d look on my case favorably. After all, he said, it would be a shame to destroy the career of such a young and promising specialist.

After that came a series of perfectly innocent questions. And I answered them straightforwardly. But gradually the questions became more serious. I slowly began to feel as if I was getting tangled up in my own statements, like finding oneself in a swamp.
My attempts at little jokes were politely, but firmly, brushed aside. I was made to understand that my position was very serious and that this was no time for joking.

So far, there were no direct threats. But through vague innuendo, an atmosphere of oppressive fear emerged. The agent soon lost interest in me and began asking about my friends. Not wanting to betray them, I began to answer more slowly and to resist, which was difficult because it meant altering the initially good-natured tone of the conversation. The agent explained that everyone would confess everything eventually and that the Committee already knew everything anyway. So it would be best for me if I just told everything exactly like it was.

As he was leaving, he told me that I would be summoned for a further conversation at the KBG’s offices. He also warned me that any contact with my friends – about which the KGB would know instantly – would be viewed as an aggravating circumstance. I was frightened, demoralized, and alone.

The End Of The Story?

I was summoned to the KGB building the very next day. The agent that I’d seen the day before had prepared a document with my testimony. All they asked of me was my signature.

Overcoming a petrifying tension, I carefully read the paper through several times and made a few corrections. The agent, who up until that point had been quite polite, wasn’t pleased. They began rushing me, saying there wasn’t much time. Finally, I signed it.

It later turned out that I had missed one tricky, ambiguous phrase that had been tucked away in the last paragraph.

But the agents quickly escorted me to the exit, gave me back my confiscated mobile phone and my passport, and set me free. However, in addition to relief, I felt an overwhelming depression and anxiety. I did not believe that this would be the end of the story.

And my anxiety was justified. Just one hour later, I was again summoned to the KGB, but this time to a different agent. I was placed in a chair with my back to the door. Across a desk from me sat another agent working at a computer. He informed me of my rights and, wrinkling his brow and pinning me down with a stern gaze, began the interrogation.

He used a pushy tone. While typing out the protocol, his fingers banged fiercely on the keyboard as if he were disciplining the unfortunate machine. The investigator moved forward and breathed heavily. Every now and again he’d make sharp movements with his hands. Several times he arose and, walking around behind my back, left the room, only to return a couple minutes later. Sometimes other people appeared from behind my back, entered the room, did something silently, and left.

At first, I kept my eyes fixed to the floor. After two hours I asked if I could be allowed to telephone my mother and tell her that I was all right. They granted my request, and an unexpected wave of immense gratitude swept over me. I felt as if the investigator had become my friend.

The interrogation went on. Then, without any prelude, another investigator barged into the room and began to scream at me, inundating me with accusations and threats. Weakly and incomprehensibly, I tried to fend him off.

When he left, the interrogation continued as if nothing had happened. But I began to come unglued. My body somehow began to melt in my chair. My heart was beating out of control – I could see it pounding in my chest under my sweater. My palms were covered in a cold sweat. My mouth went dry, and my breath began to stink. My voice wavered and cracked. After more than three hours, the interrogation came to an end.

Finally, they printed up the protocol. Although I had trouble seeing, I read it through for a long time, and then spent even more time making changes. This took about two hours. As they were showing me out the door, they handed me a summons for the next day and promised they would give me “a good talking to” if I continued “with this farce.”

Time For A Drink

When I emerged out on the street, I couldn’t figure out where I was. I walked along an unfamiliar street and soon realized I was heading in the wrong direction. After I finally was able to orient myself, I quickly headed home.

I don’t normally drink, but that night I really laid into the vodka. For a time, that brought me back to my senses. But I passed the entire night lost in endless, tormenting circles of thought. By the time morning arrived -- Friday, December 24, 2010 --  I was completely broken. My will was plastic and pliable. Concepts like pride, honor, and dignity seemed distant and unreal. Every movement demanded unspeakable effort. Waves of nausea alternated with waves of utter despair.  I could imagine only torture, prison, an iron curtain. Instead of the dawning of the year 2011, I imagined only George Orwell’s 1984.

By the time I showed up to the interrogation, I had no more strength to resist. I said what they wanted to hear, after which they stopped tormenting me. They read me an instructive message describing how bad human rights are in other countries. They printed out the protocol of my interrogation, and I signed it everywhere the investigator told me to. And then they let me go home.

I’ll never forget that Christmas. As soon as I got home, I began getting drunk again. Then, giving in to a surge of panic, I destroyed everything on my computer – books, films, music – anything that had anything to do with Belarus. I threw out badges and other things with symbols of Belarus. Mostly out of the desire to do something, I turned on the television and found a concert of Christmas carols.

I’d never really listened to carols before, but that evening their calm goodness was exactly the salve my tortured soul needed. The doors were all locked up tight. My heart raced in terror whenever the telephone rang. I expected that at any moment I would again find myself in the interrogation room. And that is how, staring glassy-eyed at the television screen, I sat, motionless, until late into the night.

Despair And Terror
The next month passed in a fog for me. I was afraid to look out the window or leave my apartment. I alternated between despair and terror. My mother developed high blood pressure and would periodically break down in tears.

And that’s when our oldest friends came to help me. These were people who cared nothing about politics but who responded to my plight with sincere, human warmth. And that feeling began to take hold; gradually, I pulled myself together. I even worked up the courage to log onto the Internet, where I read that many of my fellow countrymen had also been interrogated.

I looked for and studied all the information I could find about how to behave when being questioned. I hope this knowledge will help me if I ever find myself in that room again. But the more I recovered and the farther those experiences receded, the stronger my feelings of anger and shame for what I “confessed” grew.

It is so hard to be a man in an unfree country. If you do nothing, you are a passive participant. If you try to do something, you are broken and turned into a traitor. It takes incredible courage and spiritual strength to escape this fate. Courage and strength that I lacked.

Alyaksandr Lyalikov is an instructor in mathematics at the Yanki Kupaly State University in Hrodna. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL. Translated from the Russian by Robert Coalson


Belarusian political prisoners' spouses appeal to the world (


Learn how to look like Cleopatra from make-up artist Kandee Johnson

Hey Ladies!  If you're planning to go dance like an Egyptian this weekend, to join Egyptians in their celebration of their peaceful revolution and incredibly beautiful culture, just make sure you watch this video first, by make-up artist Kandee Johnson.   Kandee will teach how to create a beautiful Cleopatra look!  Go do it!  ~Madison Reed


Monday, February 7, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" or "Mon Salai"?

           Mona Lisa                     Salai as John the Baptist

By Peter Mikelbank

No wonder she's smiling.

Having claimed in December he would soon disclose the 500-year mystery of who had served as the model for Leonardo da Vinci's enigmatic Mona Lisa, researcher Silvano Vinceti made his findings known at a press conference in Rome Wednesday: she is actually a he.

Specifically, Vinceti says, the painting is of da Vinci's long-term young male assistant, who was called Salai (real name, Gian Giacomo Caprotti) and who allegedly owned the prized portrait when he died in 1525.

Vinceti, who heads Italy's national Historic Properties Evaluation Commission, called the relationship between the two men "ambiguous" but suggested they were lovers. The researcher also claims the painter left clues in the eyes of the Mona Lisa, linking himself with Salai.

Leonardo's painting of St. John the Baptist and a drawing called "Angel Incarnate" were also based on Salai, who "was a favorite model for Leonardo," Vinceti told a group of foreign journalists. These works, portraying a slender youth with long dark curls, bear striking similarity to the nose and mouth of the Mona Lisa, he claims.

"Leonardo certainly inserted characteristics of Salai in the last version of the Mona Lisa," said Vinceti.

Mikelbank's article continues here


Mona Lisa or Mon Salai (
Da Vinci Decoded?  Mona Lisa Identity Solved! (
Leonard da Vinci's Mona Lisa?  She Is Based on a He (


It's Time for Belarus's Freedom too!

Dictator Lukashenko with the Pope

By Bridget Johnson

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) don’t agree on much. But they both are working to oust a dictator in a former Soviet state.

Citing the chaos in Egypt, Durbin and McCain are separately trying to spotlight human-rights violations in Belarus.

In an interview with The Hill, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate said the protests and upheaval demanding democratic reforms in Tunisia and Egypt carry a lesson in viewing repressive regimes such as Belarus.

Durbin said, “There are battles going on all over the world, and our support for that effort can make a difference.”

“As we see the events unfolding in the Middle East, we also believe that events should unfold here for the people of Belarus,” McCain said during a Friday news conference with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in Lithuania. “[Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko is on the wrong side of history, and sooner or later we will see democracy and freedom in Belarus.”

But the former Soviet state stuck in its Soviet ways is not something that most Americans think about, Durbin acknowledged.

“I think most people would struggle to identify where you’d find it [on a map],” the Senate majority whip said.

Last month, Durbin visited Lithuania, where his mother was born. He spoke to the country’s parliament and marked the 20th anniversary of the Soviet “Bloody Sunday” attack on civilians in the capital Vilnius.

Realizing that it was a only three-hour drive to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Durbin secured a visa and made the trip.

Lukashenko has held onto power with an iron grip since 1994 through internationally criticized elections and a constitutional change that indefinitely extended presidential term limits.

The Dec. 19 election results, handing Lukashenko another term (“a very suspect election,” Durbin notes), resulted in thousands of Belarusians pouring into the streets in protest and seven opposition candidates being arrested, along with some 600 demonstrators.

When Durbin visited, he said, four of those candidates were still being held behind bars. He met with families of jailed activists and candidates and called for the immediate release of their loved ones.

“Most of them had no direct contact with their husbands and sons,” Durbin said.

Story continues here.

Lukashenko may face same fate at Mubarak, U.S. senator says
Belarusian political prisoners' spouses appeal to the world (
Western Focus on Belarusian Opposition  (