Latvian Anti-Gay Movement Spills Over to U.S.

West Coast Anti-Gay Movement on the March

 Latvian.
Sacramento, Calif., editor Vlad Kusakin (from left), also known as Wade Kusak; Vadim Privedenyuk, who runs an anti-gay church in Springfield, Mass.; Kenneth Hutcherson, founder of a Seattle area megachurch; and Alexey Ledyaev of Latvia are working together to battle gays in a part of the country seen as largely sympathetic to homosexuals.

At 56, Ledyaev is still youth-oriented enough to promote his vision of global theocracy through elaborate, large-scale Christian rock operas that Ledyaev writes, directs and stars in, and which are replete with lasers, smoke machines, and spandex-clad actors in ghoulish makeup. One of the rock operas, which young Russian-speaking anti-gay activists promote on video-sharing websites, features a hero character wearing a tuxedo battling men in black tights armed with tiki torches. Over heavy-metal guitar riffs, a military-like chorus sings of "victory over the gays."

In addition to Lively and Robertson, Ledyaev has cultivated the support of Rev. Ken Hutcherson, the African-American founder of Antioch Bible Church, a Seattle-area megachurch. "Hutch," as the ex-NFL player is known, played a key role in persuading Microsoft to temporarily withdraw its support for a Washington bill that would have made it illegal to fire an employee for their sexual orientation. In 2004, his "Mayday for Marriage" rally drew 20,000 people to the Seattle Mariner's Safeco Field to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.

One of Ledyaev's nephews saw Hutcherson speak in Seattle at a March 2006 debate on gay rights and arranged a meeting with the Latvian pastor. By the end of the year, Hutcherson, Ledyaev and Lively had teamed up with Vlad Kusakin, the editor of The Speaker, to form an international alliance to oppose what Hutcherson characterizes as "the homosexual movement saying they're a minority and that they need their equal rights."

Walking the Gauntlet
They took the name Watchmen on the Walls from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, in which the "watchmen" guard the reconstruction of a ruined Jerusalem. The cities they guard over today, say the contemporary Watchmen, are being destroyed by homosexuality.

"Nehemiah stood by the destroyed city of Jerusalem. So are we standing these days by the ruins of our legislative walls," Ledyaev says on the Watchmen website. "Defending Christianity begins with the restoration of the walls which is where the watchmen should stand up." The group's mission is "to bring the laws of our nations in[to] full compliance with the law of God."

During the past year, the Watchmen have met twice in the United States, first in Sacramento, then in Bellevue, Wash. They gathered to strategize against same-sex marriage and build a political organization to fight "gay-straight alliances" in public schools and push for the boycott of textbooks that mention homosexuality in any context other than total condemnation.

The group has also convened outside America. In the summer of 2006, the Watchmen and their supporters gathered in Riga, Latvia, to "protect the city from a homosexual invasion." Gay rights activists in Europe counter that it's gays who need protection from the Latvian capital, not the other way around.

And, indeed, the city is a hotbed of violent homophobia. In 2005, for example, a group of 100 gay activists, most of them from Western Europe and Scandinavia, traveled to Riga to hold a gay rights march that was widely viewed as the first real test of Latvia's official commitment to freedom of assembly, a requirement for its tentative admission to the European Union in 2004. Under heavy police escort, the gay rights demonstrators walked a few blocks through a gauntlet of ultranationalists, neo-Nazi skinheads, elderly women and youths wearing "I Love New Generation" T-shirts. They were pelted with eggs, rotten tomatoes and plastic bags full of feces.

During a parliamentary debate in Riga on whether sexual orientation should be covered under a national ban on discrimination, an activist named Janis Smits, a prominent defender of Pastor Ledyaev's New Generation Church, quoted the Old Testament: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." Last year, Smits was elevated to chair the Latvian Parliament's Human Rights Commission.

Representing the White House?
When gay rights activists in Europe announced plans to hold a second Riga Pride march in the summer of 2006, the City Council voted to ban it. The gay rights protesters showed up anyway. Once again, they were pelted with eggs, rotten produce and feces as they attempted to attend services at an Anglican church that welcomed them. Swedish gay rights activists said that a carload of violent anti-gay protesters tried to force their taxi off the road.

Roving black jeeps with dark-tinted windows that carried anti-gay activists were a new element at the 2006 march. Decals on the jeeps bore the logo "No Pride" with a red line slashing through a circled picture of two male stick figures having sex. No Pride is a group organized and funded by New Generation Church member Igors Maslakovs.

A translator wearing a "No Pride" T-shirt bearing the same logo accompanied Lively and Hutcherson during their March 2007 Watchmen tour of Latvia. On that trip, Lively told a crowd of police officers that "the gay movement is the most dangerous political movement on earth" and repeated his claims that Riga is under siege by homosexuals, despite the fact that thousands of anti-gay demonstrators had countered the showing of just a few dozen gay rights marchers the summer before.

High on the Watchmen agenda during their March Latvia visit was expressing their anger over a $7,179 donation the U.S. embassy in Latvia made to Mozaika, a Latvian gay rights organization. The four-figure sum is pocket lint in terms of U.S. foreign aid. (According to tax records, nonprofit organizations run by Lively donated a similar amount to anti-gay groups over the last two years.) But the Watchmen didn't just protest the small donation. They did so in the name of the Bush Administration. Hutcherson claimed that the White House had appointed him a "special envoy" for "family values."

"I came to you representing the White House. In my country, people will know how Latvia responded to anti-Christian statements," Hutcherson told the Latvian parliament. "We need to stand for righteousness not only morally, but also physically and financially. It's a great battle for righteousness and no one can stop it. I promise to stand with you."

Hutcherson later said that he was designated a White House envoy during a February 2007 meeting between himself, Ledyaev and Jay Hein, the head of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Hutcherson claims he has a videotape of this meeting, but so far has refused to release it.

In a written statement, White House spokesperson Alyssa J. McLenning refuted Hutcherson's claim: "The White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives did not give Hutcherson the title, 'Special Envoy for Adoptions, Family Values, Religious Freedom, and Medical Relief.' The White House did not give Hutcherson any other titles and did not coordinate with Hutcherson on his recent trip to Latvia." Impersonating a diplomat is a felony, but the White House apparently is not pursuing the matter.

A Contagious Disease
Soon after returning from the March trip, Lively visited a Russian-language evangelical church in Salem, Ore., where he screened a video documenting the Watchmen's activities in Latvia. The 45-minute tape repeatedly refers to gays as "terrorists" alongside footage of Ledyaev leading crowds in a chant: "In the name of Jesus Christ, we curse the name of homosexuality!"

In a speech given after Riga's first gay pride parade in 2005, Ledyaev told his international congregation: "Homosexuality is a … dangerous and contagious disease. The contagious should be isolated and treated. Otherwise, an epidemic will sweep through the entire community."

Lively echoed his Latvian ally's comparison of homosexuality to disease in a 2003 letter to the editor published in The Washington Times. "The homosexual movement in a society is analogous to the AIDS virus in the human body," Lively wrote. "It is not benign but destructive; it thrives at the expense of the host, and you're most likely to get it by saying yes to sodomy."

The Watchmen portray the battle against gay rights as nothing less than a biblical clash of civilizations. "The homosexual sexual ethic" and "family-based society" are at war, Lively proclaimed in his letter to The Washington Times. "One must prevail at the expense of the other."

That sort of militant rhetoric is standard among Watchmen followers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Speaking to his American counterparts in a Watchmen video, a Latvian anti-gay activist intones: "Your generation beat the Nazis, and our country beat the Communists. Together we will defeat the homosexuals!"

Outnumbered and Fearful
Anti-immigrant sentiments already were rising among Sacramento gays and lesbians prior to Singh's murder. Slavic immigrant chants of "Repent, Sodomites!" at anti-gay demonstrations were frequently countered with shouts of "Go back to Russia!" Since the killing, anger at the local Slavic evangelical community has reached the boiling point. One typical online posting to a Craigslist Web forum was titled, "DEPORT RUSSIANS NOW!!"

"Satender Singh is just the beginning of the [P]andora's box," it read. "They come here [as] religious refugees and turn their newfound freedom on our citizenry. If they are going to [cite] evangelical religious rhetoric, then I say give some Old [Testament] eye for eye."

The situation heated up further on Aug. 7, when Sacramento authorities charged Andrey Vusik, 29, with involuntary manslaughter as a hate crime in Singh's death, saying that the evidence did not show intent to kill. Vusik, leaving a wife and children in West Sacramento, fled to Russia in July, they said, and is being sought by the FBI. A second suspect, Aleksandr Shevchenko, 21, was arrested at his home and charged with intimidation and interfering with a victim's rights, also as a hate crime. Authorities roundly dismissed the claims of Vusik's wife, who told The Sacramento Bee that her husband acted in self-defense after Singh's party became raucous and sexually provocative, shocking her "Christian" family. No independent witnesses or members of Singh's party supported that version, detectives said.

Meanwhile, Ledyaev and Lively have contributed to the tension by refusing to publicly condemn Singh's murder. Vlad Kusakin, editor of The Speaker, called the killing "tragic" but criticized The Sacramento Bee for publicizing the details of the murder, alleging that the newspaper was engaged in a Nazi-style propaganda campaign against Slavic Christians.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 Slavic immigrants live in the Sacramento region, the highest concentration in the United States, and the city is home to some 70 Russian fundamentalist congregations. A third of the Slavic population considers themselves evangelicals or "Russian Baptists," a doctrine that is unrelated ideologically or organizationally to American Baptist churches. (Ironically, many of them emigrated to the United States beginning in the late 1980s to escape religious persecution in what was then still part of the Soviet Union.) Meanwhile, nearly 10% of the actual city of Sacramento's 450,000 residents openly identify as gay or lesbian — almost 45,000 men and women. Only a small handful of cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, boast higher percentages of openly gay and lesbian residents.

The disparity in numbers has not gone unnoticed. Even though many Slavic immigrants are not homophobic, there's a new and uneasy feeling among Sacramento's gay and lesbian population of being outnumbered by people who hate homosexuals in a city that has long been considered gay-friendly.

Florin Ciuriuc, a former executive director of the Slavic Community Center of Sacramento, told The Sacramento Bee earlier this year that he stopped leading anti-gay protests among his countrymen because "I saw that people were hungry for violence, for blood." Ciuric added, "I don't want people from my community killing each other or other people because they are getting aggressive."

Sacramento gay and lesbian rights advocate Wendy Hill, 33, said that when she came of age as a lesbian in the mid-1990s, Sacramento was a safer place. "As a college student, you pushed the envelope. You walked down the street hand-in-hand with another girl, even if you weren't dating." Now, Hill says, after a group of rowdy Russian-speaking protesters showed up outside her house one morning, "I get afraid of that now, walking hand in hand with my wife."

Hill, who has served on the board of several local gay and lesbian organizations, says that she first became aware of the city's large and increasingly militant anti-gay Slavic population in the spring of 2006 when she attended "Queer Youth Advocacy Day," a lobbying event at which around two dozen young gay rights activists were confronted by 350 anti-gay demonstrators. "I'd say about 90% to 95% were from Slavic churches," she said. "They were blocking sidewalks, physically intimidating. … We realized how complacent we had become. We weren't used to that type of behavior."

Hill and her partner of eight years have two young children, a 3-year-old and a 1-year old. They used to consider Sacramento a safe place for a lesbian couple to raise a family. Now they're not so sure. "It scares me," Hill says, "to think that's something going to happen to my daughter because of who her parents are."