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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

San Francisco City Hall Cancels Historic Russian Celebration, Fearing Gay Protest

Posted By on Wed, Oct 16, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Prop 8 Rally Outside SF City Hall - STEVE RHODES
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  • Prop 8 Rally Outside SF City Hall

Local LGBT activists have found many creative ways to express their anger over homophobic laws in Russia, some more effective than others. In July they sent dildos to President Vladimir Putin, hoping the notoriously repressive Russian leader might "loosen up." In August they poured Stoli Vodka -- a Russian favorite -- over the steps of City Hall, and earlier this month, members of LGBT collegiate network Go! Athletes staged a mock torch run to protest Russia hosting the 2014 winter Olympics.

And now, San Francisco's LGBT community has pressured the city to cancel a historic celebration commemorating the Russian Navy, which helped fight a massive inferno in San Francisco's financial district 150 years ago. The event, slated to happen October 23, was supposed to include a procession along the Embarcadero, as well as other themed festivities.

According to Leonid Nakhodkin, chairman of the non-profit group The United Humanitarian Mission, which helped organize the event, San Francisco's City Hall and Fire Department had zealously supported the event as of April; Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White even sent an upbeat letter to President Putin, calling the 1863 arrival of Russia's Imperial Fleet "one of the bright events in our shared history," and inviting him to attend the fete.

But San Francisco administrators changed their tune shortly after the first vodka dump, indicating that they no longer want to be seen cuddling up to any vestige of the Russian government -- even one from 150 years ago.

"I'm very sad that the gay community is against my event," Nakhodkin says, expressing his sadness, in part, by abandoning his signature perky phone salutation. ("Everything is perfect!," he would say at the beginning of phone conversations, for the last several years.)

Nakhodkin says that he first heard about the LGBT community's disapproval of all things Russian via an e-mail from City Hall, and then from Matthew Goudeau, director of the Mayor's Office of Protocol, who is away this week on Mayor Ed Lee's sister city mission to China and Korea. (Mayor Ed Lee is still in his office, attempting to stave off a BART strike.)

Given that members of The United Humanitarian Mission and the Russian Consulate hadn't publicly announced their event, yet it's unlikely that local activists had planned any protest whatsoever. Michael Petrelis, who heads the San Francisco chapter of Gays Without Borders, wrote in a blog post today that he knew nothing about the event until a reporter called this morning. That said, he's certain a protest would have happened, had the event gone forward.

Openly gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, who protested outside the Russian Consulate in August and yesterday urged the city's pension program to remove $37 million it has invested in Russian securities, agrees that a protest would have been "pretty likely." "It's not appropriate for us to be working with Russia or celebrating Russia," Wiener says, adding that Putin's current anti-gay legislation uncannily resembles laws used to persecute Jews in WWII-era Germany.

Flummoxed, Nakhodkin sent a follow-up letter to Mayor Lee shortly after hearing about the cancellation in August, begging city officials to reconsider. "It should be remembered that, when saving the lives of San Francisco residents, the Russian sailors did not differentiate among sexual orientation and saved everyone they could," he wrote, in a somewhat desperate plea for political diplomacy.

Unfortunately, such arguments won't fly in San Francisco, anymore. Nakhodkin says he's pared down the event and shoehorned it into another celebration to commemorate the National Day of United Russia on November 1. That smaller fete is supposed to happen at the Russian Consulate in Pacific Heights where we're guessing the staff has grown accustomed to angry protests by now.

Perhaps they don't mind gearing up for another one.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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