Tom Daley
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Killed in
Broad Daylight

Killed in
            Broad Daylight

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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