Russian-speaking Christian fundamentalists, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have formed a ferocious anti-gay movement in the western U.S.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On the first day of July, Satender Singh was gay-bashed to death. The 26-year-old Fijian of Indian descent was enjoying a holiday weekend outing at Lake Natoma with three married Indian couples around his age. Singh was delicate and dateless — two facts that did not go unnoticed by a party of Russian-speaking immigrants two picnic tables away.
According to multiple witnesses, the men began loudly harassing Singh and his friends, calling them "7-Eleven workers" and "Sodomites." The Slavic men bragged about belonging to a Russian evangelical church and told Singh that he should go to a "good church" like theirs. According to Singh's friends, the harassers sent their wives and children home, then used their cell phones to summon several more Slavic men. The members of Singh's party, which included a woman six months pregnant, became afraid and tried to leave. But the Russian-speaking men blocked them with their bodies.
The pregnant woman said she didn't want to fight them.
"We don't want to fight you either," one of them replied in English. "We just want your faggot friend."
One of the Slavic men then sucker-punched Singh in the head. He fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. The assailants drove off in a green sedan and red sports car, hurling bottles at Singh's friends to prevent them from jotting down the license plate. Singh suffered a brain hemorrhage. By the next day, hospital tests confirmed that he was clinically brain dead. His family agreed to remove him from artificial life support July 5.
Outside Singh's hospital room, more than 100 people held a vigil. Many were Sacramento gay activists who didn't know Singh personally, but who saw his death as the tragic but inevitable result of what they describe as the growing threat of large numbers of Slavic anti-gay extremists, most of them first- or second-generation immigrants from Russia, the Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, in their city and others in the western United States.
In recent months, as energetic Russian-speaking "Russian Baptists" and Pentecostals in these states have organized to bring thousands to anti-gay protests, gay rights activists in Sacramento have picketed Slavic anti-gay churches, requested more police patrols in gay neighborhoods and distributed information cards warning gays and lesbians about the hostile Slavic evangelicals who they say have roughed up participants at gay pride events. Singh's death was the realization of their worst fears.
"After a couple years of fundamentalist and Slavic Christian virulent anti-gay protests at almost every Sacramento gay event in the region," said local gay rights activist Michael Gorman, "what the gay community has feared for some time has finally happened."
Gay rights activists blame Singh's death on what they call "The West Coast connection" or the "U.S.-Latvia Axis of Hate," a reference to a virulent Latvian megachurch preacher who has become a central figure in the hard-line Slavic anti-gay movement in the West. And indeed, in early August, authorities announced that two Slavic men, one of whom had fled to Russia, were being charged in Singh's death, which they characterized as a hate crime.
A growing and ferocious anti-gay movement in the Sacramento Valley is centered among Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking immigrants. Many of them are members of an international extremist anti-gay movement whose adherents call themselves the Watchmen on the Walls. In Latvia, the Watchmen are popular among Christian fundamentalists and ethnic Russians, and are known for presiding over anti-gay rallies where gays and lesbians are pelted with bags of excrement. In the Western U.S., the Watchmen have a following among Russian-speaking evangelicals from the former Soviet Union. Members are increasingly active in several cities long known as gay-friendly enclaves, including Sacramento, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
Vlad Kusakin, the host of a Russian-language anti-gay radio show in Sacramento and the publisher of a Russian-language newspaper in Seattle, told The Seattle Times in January that God has "made an injection" of high numbers of anti-gay Slavic evangelicals into traditionally liberal West Coast cities. "In those places where the disease is progressing, God made a divine penicillin," Kusakin said.
The anti-gay tactics of the Slavic evangelicals in the U.S. branch of the Watchmen movement are just as crude and even more physically abusive than Fred Phelps' infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and they're rooted in gay-bashing theology that's even more hardcore than the late Jerry Falwell's. Slavic anti-gay talk radio hosts and fundamentalist preachers routinely deliver hateful screeds on the airwaves and from the pulpit in their native tongue that, were they delivered in English, would be a source of nationwide controversy.
Dennis Mangers, a gay former California state senator who now lobbies for the cable industry, said that when he met a prominent leader of Sacramento's Slavic community at a 2006 weekend reconciliation retreat, the Slavic leader told him: "You have to understand, we equate homosexuals with thieves, adulterers and murderers. … You are an abomination."
Current California State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who rode in a dignitary car in Sacramento's 2006 gay pride parade, told The Sacramento Bee he was shocked by the vitriolic comments shouted by Slavic fundamentalist counter-demonstrators. "The words are vile … and words may give people the implicit license to take the next step and hurt people."
Last summer, The Speaker, a Russian-language newspaper with an English title in Sacramento, urged readers to attend a massive anti-gay rally: "Make a choice. It's your decision. Homosexuality is knocking on your doors and asking: 'Can I make your son gay and your daughter lesbian?'"
At that rally and others at the California Capitol, thousands of Russian-speaking teens crowded the halls of the Capitol building rotunda, wearing "Sodomy is a Sin" T-shirts. Scarf-wrapped babushkas held up signs that read, "Perversion is never safe" and "I am not learning about gay people."
Last April in Salem, Ore., more than 700 Russian-speaking teenagers rallied outside the state Capitol against a pair of gay rights bills. It was the largest anti-gay protest to take place in Oregon's sleepy capital city since 1992, when the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) pushed a ballot initiative that came within a few percentage points of rewording the state constitution to declare gay people "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse" and requiring the state to fire all openly gay or lesbian public school teachers.
The executive director of the OCA at that time was Scott Lively, a longtime anti-gay activist who is now the chief international envoy for the Watchmen movement. Lively also is the former director of the California chapter of the anti-gay American Family Association and the founder of both Defend the Family Ministries and the Pro-Family Law Center, which claims to be the country's "only legal organization devoted exclusively to opposing the homosexual political agenda."
The Watchmen movement's strategy for combating the "disease" of homosexuality calls for aggressive confrontation. "We church leaders need to stop being such, for lack of a better word, sissies when it comes to social and political issues," Lively argues in a widely-circulated tract called Masculine Christianity. "For every motherly, feminine ministry of the church such as a Crisis Pregnancy Center or ex-gay support group we need a battle-hardened, take-it-to-the-enemy masculine ministry like [the anti-abortion group] Operation Rescue."
Lively identifies "the enemy" as not only homosexuals, but also what he terms "homosexualists," a category that includes anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, who "actively promotes homosexuality as morally and socially equivalent to heterosexuality as a basis for social policy."
When he personally confronts the enemy, Lively practices what he preaches when it comes to "battle-hardened" tactics. He recently was ordered by a civil court judge to pay $20,000 to lesbian photojournalist Catherine Stauffer for dragging her by the hair through the halls of a Portland church in 1991.
The Pink Passport
Lively occasionally writes for Chalcedon Report, a journal published by the Chalcedon Foundation, the leading Christian Reconstructionist organization in the country. (Reconstructionists typically call for the imposition of Old Testament law, including such draconian punishments as stoning to death active homosexuals and children who curse their parents, on the United States.) But he's most famous as the co-author of The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party.
Published in 1995, the book is a breathtaking work of Holocaust revisionism. It asserts that Hitler was gay — a claim no serious historian supports — and that Hitler and other evil gay fascists were central in forming the Nazi Party, operating the Third Reich and orchestrating the Holocaust. (Lively's most recent book, The Poisoned Stream, similarly details "a dark and powerful homosexual presence" through "the Spanish Inquisition, the French 'Reign of Terror,' the era of South African apartheid, and the two centuries of American Slavery.")
The Pink Swastika — whose cover has a swastika in place of the "x" in "homosexuality" in the book's subtitle — has been roundly discredited by legitimate historians and was thoroughly debunked in a 2005 Intelligence Report article. Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, said the book was "produced by a right-wing Christian cult and is as correct as flat earth theory."
Lively declined to answer several E-mails seeking comment.
Nevertheless, The Pink Swastika has become Lively's passport to fame among anti-gay church leaders and their followers in Eastern Europe, as well as Russian-speaking anti-gay activists in America. Lively frequently speaks about the book and his broader anti-gay agenda in churches, police academies and television news studios throughout the former Soviet Union.
Lively credits the popularity of Russian-language translations of The Pink Swastika to the support of Pastor Alexey Ledyaev, the head of the New Generation Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch based in Riga, the capital city of Latvia. New Generation has more than 200 satellite churches spread throughout Eastern Europe, Argentina, Israel and the United States.
"One of my supporters gave him [Ledyaev] a copy of The Pink Swastika. He was very impressed by it," Lively said in a December 2006 radio show on WTTT-AM, based in Boston. "The European press was bashing them [Ledyaev and his church] for being Nazis. He was finally thrilled that he had something to counter the media with." Ledyaev did not respond to E-mails seeking comment.
Since then, Lively said, "I've been deluged by media speaking offers all over the former Soviet Union."
In Sacramento, editorials in The Speaker urge readers to buy The Pink Swastika. Even right-wing legislators in the California Assembly are said to audibly groan when Slavic evangelicals wave a copy of the pink volume during testimony.
Rock Operas and Reconstruction
The New Generation theology Ledyaev preaches borrows heavily from R.J. Rushdoony, the late founding thinker of Christian Reconstruction. Pastor Ledyaev's 2002 book, New World Order, calls for evangelical Christians around the world to influence the wealthy and powerful in their home countries to implement biblical law in order to stave off a supposed alliance of gays and Muslims hell-bent on destroying Christianity. "The first devastating wave of homosexuality makes a way for the second and more dangerous wave of islamization [sic]," writes Ledyaev.
Born in Kazakhstan, Ledyaev doesn't even speak fluent Latvian. But he's quite proficient in the international language of the anti-gay Christian Right. Ledyaev is close friends with Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson — a man who once predicted God would punish Florida with hurricanes and other disasters because Disney World had allowed a "Gay Days" discount — and was invited to the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast hosted by President George Bush.
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."