CAPE ELIZABETH — Meeting with a group of parents of gays and lesbians over brunch isn’t something Lyudmila Romodina and Oleg Klyuenkov would do in their own city of Archangel, Russia.
Doing so would risk their becoming the targets of a violent hate crime or stiff fines under new laws that ban picketing and other activities in public places in support of gay rights.
But on Sunday the two sipped coffee and shared bacon and pastries with members of the Maine chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays at a brunch hosted by Kathy and Ken Johnson at their Cape Elizabeth home, and there was no fear of negative repercussions.
“In Russian society, gay people live closed off. There are very few openly gay people,” said Romodina.
The two Russian gay-rights activists are spending the week in and around Portland, Archangel’s American sister city and one of the most gay-friendly cities in the United States, in an effort to learn how to promote gay rights in Russia, which is experiencing a rise in anti-gay rights activity.
Their visit was arranged by Human Rights First, a nonprofit group in New York and Washington, D.C., that promotes human rights internationally, and by Robert Lieber, a Peaks Island resident involved in efforts to help the members of the Russian feminist rock group Pussy Riot who are imprisoned for hooliganism.
Romodina, who runs a support group for parents of gay children, and Klyuenkov, an assistant philosophy professor, are both members of Perspective, an Archangel gay-rights organization. Archangel is a city of about 350,000 people in northern European Russia near the White Sea.
Archangel was among the first of 10 Russian political subdivisions in the past few years to adopt bans on gay rights activism in public amid a rise in violent hate crimes against gays and lesbians. Earlier this year a ban was adopted at the federal level.
At the brunch Sunday, the two said the recent turnabout on gay rights in Russia is part of a general crackdown on civil liberties and dissent following massive protests against alleged fraud in the parliamentary elections in 2011.
“The authorities are trying to use homophobia as a distraction. They are creating a scapegoat,” said Klyuenkov.
Speaking through Human Rights First interpretor Innokenty Grekov, Klyuenkov and Romodina said they are also using their visit to urge Portland officials to maintain their ties to their Russian sister city, unlike such cities as Venice, Milan, and Lansing, Mich., which canceled their Russian sister-city programs in protest of the Russian anti-gay rights legislation.
“We would love it for Portland to guide Archangel in the right direction here,” said Klyuenkov.
The two said they were impressed by how accepting people in the Portland area appear to be of gay rights.
“I noticed a lesbian couple walking with their dog holding hands and smiling. Unfortunately, girls won’t hold hands in Russia, where they feel very self-conscious that they are being followed,” said Romodina.
Other guests at the brunch said they wanted to show the Russians some support.
“We would like them to see how gay families live here and the strides we have made,” said Jennifer Curran of Portland, who was accompanied by her longtime partner and wife of two weeks, Carolyn Curran, and their daughter, Meghan, 7.
The two Russian gay activists are making several more stops in Greater Portland before they leave Thursday for Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Obama administration.
On Tuesday they will talk about the issues gays face in Russia and their own efforts to promote gay rights at a free public talk at 7:30 p.m. at the Space Gallery in Portland.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: