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Russian Gay Activists Hone Advocacy Skills in Maine

Tom Porter
Members of the Russian group, Rakurs, visiting Maine include, left to right, Elise Johansen, Ludmila Romodina, Tatiana Vinnichenko, Valera Menshikova and Oleg Klyuenkov (standing).

PORTLAND, Maine - A delegation of gay activists from Portland's sister city in Russia are in Maine this week, seeking guidance on how to make the most out of a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.The grant was awarded to a gay rights advocacy group here in Maine, to conduct outreach work with their Russian counterparts. The grant's sum of $100,000 might not sound like much money, given Russia's recent anti-gay crackdown. But one Maine officials says it sends a strong message to the Kremlin.

This is the first time that an embassy grant has been put toward an issue like LGBT rights in Russia. And the four members of the Archangel, Russia-based group - called Rakurs, which is Russian for "perspective" - want the money to be spent wisely.

They've have been visiting Maine this week for face-to-face meetings on how the grant money can be used. On Tuesday, they attended an LGBT youth conference at Colby College. Elise Johansen of Equality Maine, the group which was awarded the grant earlier this year, says the project has yielded at least one tangible result so far.

We have created a guide, compiled by six LCSW's in Maine, and it's going to be translated into Russian and given to the organization Rakurs," Johansen says, "and also a tip sheet on how to create safe and affirming spaces."

Creating safe and affirming spaces for the LGBT community is notably harder in Russia than it is here, says Tatiana Vinnichenko, the director of Rakurs. Through an interpreter, she says the partnership with Equality Maine has proven valuable. "The program is excellent in that it has allowed us to take advocacy skills from the organization that has hosted us here and we are now armed with more practical ways in which we can work together with organizations to help improve the work that we do in Russia."

Vinnichenko hopes the Portland/Archangel relationship can become a pilot project to be replicated elsewhere in Russia through other sister-city collaborations. But it won't be easy, she says. Russia's LGBT community faces widespread discrimination, including laws that could see people labeled as "foreign agents" because of their sexual orientation.

"How does life here for an LGBT person, compare with life in Russia?" I ask Vinnichenko.

"The kind of rights and laws that exist in the United States for LGBT people is only a dream for us at home," she says, through the interpreter.

"I think it sends a very strong message to the Kremlin that we care about human rights policy in this country and will invest our funds to try and make it better," says Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine's 1st District, which includes Portland. Members of Pingree's staff met with the Rakurs delegation earlier this week.

"We certainly let them know that we thought they were extremely brave to be out here talking in the open," Pingree says, "and that this was a really great opportunity to work with Equality Maine, who's done some amazing work, and hopefully will be a real asset to them."

Equality Maine Director Elise Johansen, meanwhile, says the group will continue to share advice and resources with its Russian partner in the coming months, and plans to send a delegation to visit Archangel later this year.