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Gay Advocates, Out of the Closet

Yevgenia Debranskaya

One of the biggest things Yevgenia Debranskaya can give to the Triangle Association is her name and face in print.

As one of Russia's first open lesbians, Debranskaya has freely given those things -- she talks to reporters in her south Moscow apartment, restraining her two aggressive terriers -- as a first step in establishing a solid support network for gays and lesbians. Triangle's president, a young woman from Novosibirsk who is identified only as Assia, still is not prepared to link her real name publicly with the organization, said Debranskaya, the group's executive director. Assia appeared once at a televised press conference -- with her eyes blacked out, to protect her identity.

The leadership of Russia's first national gay and lesbian rights advocacy group is making the dizzying leap to legitimacy in a country where, until last summer, sex between men still carried a prison sentence.

"Everything is just beginning," Debranskaya said. Public debate over gay rights is "all surfacing now in our society. Four years ago, none of this existed."

The path, as Debranskaya sees it, relies on the holy watchwords of organized activism -- exposure, incorporation, fund-raising -- all of which are new experiences for Russian gays and lesbians. The euphoria of last summer, when Article 121 was repealed, has given way to a need for structure, a legal and logistical battle that could dampen anyone's enthusiasm. Debranskaya is approaching that task hand-in-hand with activists from the West, where the infrastructure for non-profit activism has grown into a bureaucracy in its own right.

"There is no organizational tradition" in Russia, said American Julie Stachowiak, who became involved through her work in AIDS advocacy. "We're starting from scratch in a lot of ways."

The most daunting task is convincing gays and lesbians, who have been shut out of the social mainstream for their whole lives, to become a high-profile group themselves. "These are people who have accomplished what they have outside the government system," she said. "Information is still something to be hoarded." Activists must first gain self-confidence, she said -- a rare quality for those who grew up under the Communist ban.

The Triangle Association first convened in August 1993, and comprises 27 regional groups, with the bulk of its members living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Debranskaya said. Among its main initiatives are the drive to gain legal status as a Russian organization, allowing them to endorse a political candidate in the 1996 election, and to lobby for the release from prison of men still serving sentences under Article 121. The association plans to open an information center, and establish itself long-term as "a coordinating body that doesn't let people forget about each other," she said.

This is the boring part of activism, said Peter Falatyn, an American who serves on Triangle's steering committee along with Stachowiak. "People who are politically active often have very poor organizational skills," said Falatyn.

Foreigners should not be leaders in the group, Falatyn stressed, but they can provide a model of organized activism, based on non-profit lobbies that have become real political forces in the West.

"One of the reasons Westerners get involved is because we have a sense of what things could be." .

The Triangle Association's first fund-raising activity, a tea dance with free beer and a concert, will be on Sunday at 3 P.M. at the Sports Bar, 10 Novy Arbat. Tickets are $15, which will go to the Triangle Center.

Ellen Barry
6 May 1994
The Moscow Times

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