Beauty pageant fails to impress Belarus' gays

  • 2002-07-04
  • Nick Coleman, MINSK
In his schoolgirl uniform Alexey struts the dance floor at a clandestine Belarusian gay club, hoping to be declared best drag queen. He is in an exuberant mood for one whose closest friend was recently murdered in this increasingly lawless East European country.

"I refuse to be frightened by those who can't accept me," said Alexey, his make-up glistening in the smoke filled atmosphere of the Meeting Club in Minsk.

Hosted by a towering gravel-voiced blonde the drag queen contest could not be further from the nationwide state run beauty pageant whose final took place on June 30.

The beauty pageant's aim was to boost the "aesthetic and spiritual education of young people," and the finalists, aged 17 to 23, met "international standards," the country's Deputy Culture Minister Vladimir Rylatko told the Belapan news agency ahead of the event.

But Alexey and his friends said the contest showed the state's detachment from such realities as a spate of killings of gays, an impending AIDS crisis and an abortion rate which is eight times the European Union average, according to World Health Organization statistics.

Alexey's friend Ivan Sushinsky, who managed the country's only openly gay club, died in hospital last summer after being tortured with hot knives, bound with adhesive tape and beaten.

It was the most high-profile of five killings of gays, all involving torture, in Minsk in the last 20 months, according to the Belarusian Sexual Minorities' League. In earlier incidents two gay men were dismembered in public parks, says Sergei Torpachyov, the league's spokesman.

According to Interior Ministry spokesman Dmitry Parton, Belarus has "no acute problem with killings of gays." But Torpachyov retorts that law enforcement agencies have shown little interest in investigating the killings. The beauty pageant was a "nice joke," he said darkly.

"The number of girls who are dying because of illegal abortions will continue to grow, as will the number of young homosexuals who commit suicide," said Torpachoyov.

There is one idea here, inherited from the Soviet Union, that homosexuals are perverts.

For Dmitry Markushevsky spokesman for the Belarusian Helsinki Committee which campaigns for human rights, the killings of gays are part of a collapse in the rule of law which goes beyond the disappearance of around 20 opponents of President Alexander Lukashenka since he came to power in 1994.

The situation has deteriorated since Lukashenka claimed a second term in an flawed election last September, and since then Belarus' international isolation has increased.

"Anyone who turns to the police or the courts can't get help and the part of society which is afraid has grown," said Markushevsky.

And while the West supports Belarus' hard-pressed opposition groups as the best hope of democratization, those whose lifestyles conflict with nationalist ideals are regularly told to keep away from anti-government demonstrations. The Sexual Minorities League "is not only perverted but discredits democratic society," claimed a leading protest group, The Youth Front, in a recent statement to the media.

At the time of last September's election gays took advantage of the international media presence to stage an unprecedented "love parade" in the center of Minsk. But for the most part such exhibitionism is confined to the Meeting Club, which lies hidden in a silent industrial zone and guarded by jittery doormen.

Sergei Torpachyov hands a large vodka to his friend Alexey as the judges in the drag queen contest sit huddled in a swirl of sequins and feather boas, deliberating over their decision.

"Almost everyone is afraid," said Torpachyov. "But here people can start to feel like people, rather than creatures fighting for their lives."