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Gays fear an influx of hate

Times Staff Writer

One punch was all it took. One punch to forever divide. One punch to kill a young man.

On a hot summer afternoon along a placid lakefront in the Sacramento suburbs, Satender Singh had come with a group of fellow Fijians to celebrate his promotion at an AT&T; call center. Three married couples and Singh, a lighthearted 26-year-old, drank and hooted and danced a crazy conga line to East Indian music.

An innocent outing? Not in the eyes of the Russian family a few picnic tables away.

Andrey Vusik, 29, fresh from morning church services with his young children in tow, stared with disgust as Singh danced and hugged the other men while their wives giggled. To the Russian, Singh seemed rude and inappropriate, a gay man putting on an outrageous public display.

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Angry stares led to an afternoon of traded insults. As the long day slid toward dusk, the tall Russian immigrant approached with a friend to demand an apology. Singh refused. Vusik threw a single punch.

Singh’s head smacked into a concrete walkway. The joyful young man with the musical laugh died four days later of brain injuries.

Now, half a year after that angry Sunday afternoon at Lake Natoma, 15 miles east of the state Capitol, the case remains anything but resolved.

Vusik, a father of three, fled the U.S. and remains a fugitive, charged with involuntary manslaughter. Authorities suspect he is on the run in Russia, and the FBI has joined the hunt. Meanwhile, a young friend of Vusik -- Alex Shevchenko -- faces trial next month on hate-crime http, accused of helping to inflame the confrontation last July 1 and then hurling a bottle as he fled.

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The tragedy has exacerbated tensions between Sacramento’s gay community and the region’s booming population of Slavic evangelical Christians, whose most vocal congregants in recent years have mobilized on the streets and statehouse steps to protest homosexuality.

Shevchenko did not throw a punch, but he could face three years behind bars if convicted. Slavic leaders say the 21-year-old is being scapegoated. They say an isolated tragedy is being used to ostracize their community of refugees from the former Soviet Union.

“This was not a hate crime; this was a street fight,” said Roman Romasco, executive director of the Slavic Assistance Center in Sacramento. “From a street fight, they try to make a big case. From a little spark, they try to make a big fire. But you cannot blame the whole community over this.”

Gay rights activists in Sacramento, which has one of the larger per capita gay populations in the U.S., believe Singh’s death is the inevitable result of an organized campaign of homophobia imported from the old Soviet republics.

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“The roots of what these guys did to Satender Singh can be traced to what’s being preached in their churches,” said Jerry Sloan, founder of Project Tocsin, a Sacramento-based group that monitors the religious right. “Some sitting in those pews believe they’ve heard it straight from God: that homosexuality is an abomination.”

With as many as 100,000 newcomers from republics such as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, the Sacramento region has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Soviet immigrants. Most began arriving in the late 1980s -- about a third of them conservative evangelical Christians seeking religious freedom.

The influx has created a thriving Russian community with Russian-language newspapers, cable TV and radio shows, as well as 70 Slavic churches -- nearly all adherents of a fundamentalist creed that condemns homosexuality.

Those beliefs, preached from the pulpit and voiced in Russian-language media, did not attract much attention until 2005, when a vocal crowd of Slavic evangelicals mounted a protest at the state Capitol against same-sex marriage.

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In the years since, they have become the most aggressive anti-gay contingent in the region. Holding signs and wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Sodomy is a Sin,” they have mounted protests against state legislation, rallied at school board meetings and picketed fundraisers for politicians backed by gay-rights groups.

Sometimes their protests have taken a more personal tack.

Nathan Feldman, 30, said Slavic protesters have shoved him and spit on him at gay-pride events. Feldman said he lost his job at a jewelry store after a Ukrainian co-worker discovered he was gay and lied to get him fired. That wasn’t all. A vandal scrawled graffiti on a trash dumpster outside his apartment: “Nathan Feldman, Die for AIDS.”

“All of this has been going on way before Satender was killed,” said Feldman, now a reporter for a gay-focused cable news show.

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Local politicians have warned Slavic churches to tone down the rhetoric. State Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a newspaper opinion piece that “radical fundamentalists” have pinned a bull’s-eye on the gay community. “Tragically now, the threat of violence has become reality, as manifested in this murder.”

Since Singh’s death, civil-rights groups have expressed concern that Russian enclaves in such West Coast cities as Sacramento, Portland and Seattle have become spawning grounds for virulent anti-gay sentiment.

A recent Southern Poverty Law Center report said many of the region’s most vocal Slavic activists are followers of an international anti-gay group called Watchmen on the Walls. Formed just a few years ago, the group has established a potent presence among Slavic evangelicals in the U.S. and abroad.

Using battle-tinged rhetoric, the Watchmen have called for evangelicals to step aggressively into the political realm to fight what they see as a gay agenda threatening the traditional family.

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They held a convention in Sacramento -- attended by several dozen devotees -- just a few months before the Singh killing.

The founders include Alexey Ledyaev, pastor of New Generation Church -- a Latvian-based denomination with more than 200 satellite congregations, including one in Sacramento -- and Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist and attorney with California roots who wrote “The Pink Swastika,” a book linking Nazi Germany’s Third Reich to homosexuality.

Vlad Kusakin, the host of a Sacramento Russian-language radio show and publisher of a Slavic newspaper that circulates in several West Coast cities, has appeared at Watchmen conventions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has added the Watchmen to its list of hate groups, which includes such organizations as the Aryan Nations and the Golden State Skinheads.

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“The rationale is the extreme viciousness of the group’s anti-gay propaganda,” said Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Project.

Lively said in an e-mail that Watchmen do not promote or condone violence and are being unfairly subjected to a “hate-themed smear campaign.” As for gay people, he said, “The public sympathy they enjoy as a political movement cannot survive honest scrutiny of their lifestyle or agenda.”

Shevchenko’s trial is set for April 29. Michael Long, his attorney, said the facts don’t warrant hate-crime charges. Vusik initially asked Singh and his friends to stop their sexually explicit dancing, the attorney said, but the Fijians refused and called the Russians “white trash.”

“I’m sure if it had been two straight people doing simulated sexual acts, they would have felt the same way,” Long said. “This wasn’t about evangelical versus gay. The Russians just wanted a peaceful picnic, and the Fijians were being obnoxious.”

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Singh’s friends and family have tiptoed around questions of his sexual orientation. Since arriving from Fiji, he mostly stayed in the closet, gay activists say, occasionally hitting bars to dance.

His circle of friends was big and grew easily. One co-worker told mourners at a memorial service about a phone message Singh had left, a few words laced together by his lilting laugh. She vowed never to erase it.

Singh had gone to the lakefront with three couples, all straight. One of the women was pregnant.

A video shot by one of Singh’s friends that afternoon shows him dancing with both men and women, grinding hips and at one point being theatrically swatted on the rear by a male friend holding a leafy stick.

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Vusik, who worked in auto exports, was barbecuing with his wife, Tatyana, their children and a sister-in-law, Dasha. Shevchenko, Dasha’s boyfriend, joined the group later.

Witnesses told authorities that the two camps on the shoreline traded insults for hours.

Details of the confrontation were sketched out during a preliminary hearing.

One witness said she heard the Fijians name-calling first.

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Others said the Russians were the aggressors. Vusik allegedly told one of Singh’s friends he wanted the “faggot” to “say sorry to me.”

Late in the day, Vusik and Shevchenko approached to ask for that apology. Singh refused. Arguing erupted anew around the picnic table. Prosecutors say Vusik threw a cup of beer at one of Singh’s friends, Singh stood up and Vusik punched him.

Gay activists continue to insist that the homicide was no random act of violence. Some say murder charges should have been filed. With several gay-pride events planned in the capital city in April, they worry about more trouble.

Marghe Covino, a veteran Sacramento civil rights activist and member of the Satender Justice Coalition -- formed after Singh’s death -- said 60 gay people were murdered in Russia last year.

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“People here feel targeted. They feel unsafe,” she said. “All it will take is one more angry person to pick up a rock. Or pick up a gun.”

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com


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