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Killed in
Broad Daylight

Killed in
Broad Daylight

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Sacramento has long been considered a tolerant city, but a gay man's violent death has exposed the wide divide between LGBT residents and the area's Slavic evangelical Christians.

Clayton Pettus used to spend Sunday afternoons with his coworker and friend. The pair would people-watch from the second floor of the Sacramento gay bar Badlands, where they could look down and take in the dancing crowd below them. That setup might seem tailor-made for two gay guys to dish, but Pettus says Singh never talked smack about anyone.

"He was such a good guy," Pettus says. "He never had a negative thing to say."

Pettus remembers Singh as being very closeted when they first met, even telling people he was bisexual. But as he became more comfortable with his surroundings, Pettus says, "I really got to see him blossom."

A few years ago, Pettus says, Singh showed up at a local pride celebration with his dog, whom he'd costumed for the occasion. Pettus remarked that the dog looked like Paris Hilton, and Singh embraced the idea. "He absolutely owned it," Pettus says. "That's what I loved most about him--own what you are and work with it, rather than work against it."

On the first Sunday in July, however, Singh didn't go out with Pettus. Instead he went with a different group of friends to a picnic. Four days later he was dead.

When they learned what had happened to Singh, Marghe Covino and Jerry Sloan saw their worst fears coming true. Covino, a longtime lesbian activist in Sacramento, and Sloan, a Metropolitan Community Church minister who cofounded the city's LGBT Lambda Community Center, had been warning people in the diverse and progressive state capital that nearby evangelical churches were ratchetting up their antigay rhetoric. Some area churches that serve relatively new immigrants from former Soviet republics had over the past couple of years organized a series of increasingly hostile demonstrations to protest local LGBT events, going so far as to threaten and spit on pride festival revelers and gay political rally participants.

"I told people about what I was beginning to see," Covino says. "It hadn't popped up on the radar yet. Everybody said I was a Cassandra. Now everyone is running for the hills. It's typical of our community -- we are reactive as opposed to proactive."

What made people react was what happened to Singh. While he was picnicking with six straight friends at a local state park, a group at a nearby table who were said to be speaking Russian allegedly singled out Singh -- who like the rest of his group was a Fijian of Indian descent -- and began hurling religious, racial, and antigay epithets. The rhetoric escalated once the Russian speakers sent home the women and children in their group and summoned more men, who prevented Singh's party from leaving the park. According to local newspaper The Sacramento Bee, county homicide investigators say one of the men, Andrey Vusik, punched Singh, hitting him so hard he fell down and smashed his head. Vusik and his friends got away; an unconscious Singh was rushed to the hospital.

As soon as Covino heard about Singh, she went to the hospital, where his friends and family were sitting vigil. When they filled her in on some of the details, Covino made a connection: "The use of some of the terms gave me the idea that it was not just Slavic people but religious people, because they were calling them 'sodomites.' "

Though he'd taken just one punch, major damage had been done; Singh never regained consciousness and died four days later after he was pronounced brain-dead and removed from life support. He was 26. Vusik, charged with involuntary manslaughter, is currently a fugitive from justice and is thought to be in Russia; in mid October a 21-year-old associate of Vusik's, Aleksandr Shevchenko, pleaded not guilty in Sacramento superior court to hate-crime charges related to Singh's death. A preliminary hearing for Shevchenko is scheduled for late November, the Bee reported.

Covino wasn't the only one keeping vigil who didn't know Singh personally. She and members of Asian and Pacific Islander community groups, as well as area Muslims and Sikhs, quickly formed the Satendar Justice Coalition to ensure that city residents and law enforcement officials recognize Singh's death as a hate crime and take measures to prevent further such tragedies. The coalition also helped raise money to send Singh's body back to his parents in Fiji and organize a memorial.

"We've been coasting along here," Sloan says, noting that LGBT people have long been integrated politically and socially into larger Sacramento life and that until recently, protesters at gay events had been small, disorganized groups. That changed in 2006, when hundreds of Slavic evangelicals showed up at Queer Youth Advocacy Day, a lobbying initiative that brings LGBT students to Sacramento to meet with state legislators.

"Prior to that, they would be lucky if they had 75 people at a rally," Sloan explains. "Now they get [up to] 500 Russians down there. It's crazy."

Sloan describes physical confrontations, incredibly provocative signs, and repeated spitting -- behavior that continued at Sacramento's gay pride weekend in 2006. Soon after the pride festival, the aggressive tactics appeared again at a rally to protest a state bill that would have prohibited public schools from using textbooks that reflect negatively on gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger subsequently vetoed the bill.

"I went down as a counterprotester," Sloan says. "I was surrounded by 50 Slavics screaming 'repent' at me." After those events, according to Sloan, the chief of police brought in organizers of the protest and told them they had to tone down the behavior, particularly spitting and other forms of physical harassment, or face arrest.

While LGBT Sacramentans are quick to say that not all Slavic evangelicals are so hostile, they point to the rhetoric coming out of some of the churches as partially culpable for Singh's death.

"There are forces, definitely radical forces, that are trying to exploit Slavic immigrants to attack gays and lesbians," says Dennis Mangers, a former California state assemblyman who is a longtime LGBT activist in the area. "To see signs held by 4- and 5-year-olds that say 'please don't molest me,' it breaks my heart. That I would ever touch a child...it just makes my heart break. They have been whipped up by somebody."

Mangers tried to start a dialogue with the churches a few months before the tragic picnic at the state park. With the help of members from a local Slavic community forum, Mangers brought together a few Slavic pastors and local gays and lesbians for a meal and a discussion facilitated by a professional mediator.

"To our dismay, a very hard-core group came," Mangers says.

Things went from bad to worse when one pastor told Mangers that they considered homosexuals on par with thieves and adulterers. "It was bone-chilling," Mangers remembers. "We didn't feel like we made much of a breakthrough."

Mangers and others in Sacramento point to individuals like Scott Lively as a major instigator of tensions between LGBT people and Slavic evangelicals. Lively is president of the antigay organization Defend the Family International and coauthor of the 1995 book The Pink Swastika: Homosexuals and the Nazi Party, a text widely derided by scholars for suggesting that a politicized cabal of gay men drove the rise of the Third Reich. More recently, Lively, a U.S. citizen, has been reaching out to Slavic evangelical communities in both the United States and Europe through an organization he cofounded called Watchmen on the Walls, which he described in a statement posted online October 22 as "a global coalition of men and women of every race, color, and nationality who believe in the superiority of the natural family and marriage between one man and one woman." The statement says that, while the group does not condone violence, "We do not apologize for opposing homosexuality because it is morally, physically, psychologically, and socially wrong, unnatural, and harmful. This is self-evident to the vast majority of the citizens of the world, whom we represent." The statement goes on to say, "Public advocacy of homosexuality should be, like public drunkenness, culturally discouraged to minimize its impact on society."

Earlier in October, Lively posted on the Defend the Family International Web site his "Letter to the Russian People," discussing his visit to Russia and warning of a "homosexual political movement," which he spoke of at length during his travels. "This is a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it," Lively wrote, also noting that The Pink Swastika is being translated into Russian in 2008. The letter follows similar polemics in which Lively has addressed Lithuanians and Latvians.

Lively is not solely focused on organizing antigay forces in the former Soviet republics. In October, Lively staged a Watchmen conference in a suburb of Seattle that attracted around 100 attendees, including many Slavic evangelicals. The conference brought out protesters and garnered media attention in the area. According to The Seattle Times, Andrew Prakasam, the conference's master of ceremonies, said, "If you've come to hear a message of hatred, you've come to the wrong place."

Mark Potok, the director and editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, edited a detailed story about Singh, the Slavic evangelicals, and their connection to Lively and Watchmen on the Walls. The SPLC is so concerned about the Watchmen it is moving to classify the organization as a hate group, one of the few it tracks solely on the basis of antigay activity. Another notable antigay hate group the SPLC recognizes is the Reverend Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church, but Potok sees a big difference between the Watchmen and Phelps, who was ordered by a federal jury in Baltimore on October 31 to pay $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages to the family of a marine whose funeral Phelps picketed.

"Fred Phelps really pales in comparison because, at the end of the day, it's Fred and his kids," Potok says. "This seems like a much more serious phenomenon. We're talking about an organization that has preached to thousands and thousands of people in several countries. It is much more worrying."

What worries Potok in particular is the possibility of inflamed rhetoric leading to more incidents like the one that left Singh dead. "They are operating in cities that have historically been very friendly to gay people, and therefore have large gay populations," he warns. "The potential for physical conflict is very high."

After Singh's death, Covino, Sloan, and Mangers redoubled their efforts. Local law enforcement and political leaders are now aware of the tensions, and by all accounts have responded promptly. Slavic evangelicals also took notice; their protests at recent Sacramento gay events have been subdued or nonexistent.

Mangers thinks most of the pastors preaching antigay rhetoric "saw [Singh's death] as an isolated incident. Even though none of them would condone murder as a reaction, they thought this was an example of the immorality of a society that allows homosexuals to behave with demonstrable affection. They would have thought it not that big of an incident until the media approached it."

Sloan is afraid that Singh's death is just the beginning of more bloodshed, and he's wary of Mangers's engagement approach. "People want to talk, and we do need to talk, but I don't think the talking is going to get us anywhere," Sloan says. "I don't know that there's anything that can be done as long as these guys are preaching that we're not normal and [are] scum of the earth. I'm very pessimistic in that regard."

For Mangers, the greater risk comes from isolating a community that already feels misunderstood. "I think they are a fragmented community," Mangers says of the Sacramento Slavic evangelicals. "We don't do a very good job assimilating folks. We set them apart; they get frightened and intimidated and become easy prey to radicals."

In order to bring about change, Mangers is trying to reach out to moderate and secular Slavs in Sacramento who saw Singh's death as a turning point. One person he's connected with is Michael Lokteff, who helped him organize the first meeting between the two sides. Born in China after his parents fled Russia, Lokteff came to the United States 56 years ago, after which he founded a Christian ministry to broadcast behind the Iron Curtain.

"I believe that there's room for dialogue, and I'm not the only one who thinks so," Lokteff says, noting that he sees the death as "an awful tragedy" and fears a backlash of "Slavaphobia" in the larger community. A member of a 1,500-person Slavic evangelical church, Lokteff thinks the assimilation of successive waves of Eastern Europeans and Russians has been successful in Sacramento, though he notes that the direction taken by some of the approximately 100 local Slavic evangelical churches wasn't his choice. "I am ready to go to pasture," the 70-year-old Lokteff says, "so I feel that it's unfortunate I did not challenge those young folks who came up and saw the potential for leadership."

Clearly there are differences of opinion even between Lokteff and Mangers. Lokteff doesn't see Singh's death as a hate crime, and he describes the incident as "the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time. It did not reflect the larger issue of evangelicals having a different point of view than the gay agenda, as we call it."

But Lokteff shares Mangers's concern that groups like the Watchmen are selling Slavic immigrants a false bill of goods. "When they find out what these folks really represent they will draw back, and I don't think they will have any clout at all," Lokteff says, noting that in September he attended what he thought was a conference in Sacramento. "I was hoping to hear Scott Lively speak, but it never got to him," he says, explaining that he and others left after they realized the conference wasn't what they expected. "I was disappointed it was not a conference but a rally."

Mangers says he is optimistic, "because if you're not optimistic about the potential for peaceful resolution, there is no reason to be involved."

"It's always been my experience that there are moderates who want to fix something. You just need to find them," he adds. Despite the language barriers and cultural differences, Mangers argues that he should work to "prevent another incident that led to the loss of an extraordinary, sweet young man."

Lokteff worries that the greater tragedy of Singh's death could be long-lasting alienation felt by Sacramento's Slavs. But he also sees a model they could follow--that of LGBT rights activists. "They put their struggle in terms of an organized, strategic way, gradually getting their point across, and were successful in doing so," he says. "Slavs are very impatient. They need to learn something from the gay movement."

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