The Washington Times - October 14, 2009, 10:28AM

One would think that Russian gay activists would be elated by the new statue of American poet and gay icon Walt Whitman in Moscow — and if that wasn’t enough, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on hand to unveil it Wednesday morning.

Instead, the gays were disappointed. Mrs. Clinton stood beside Moscow’s unapologetically homophobic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has repeatedly banned gay pride parades and called them “satanic,” but she failed to speak up for gay rights.

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“Russia is supposed to be a democracy, and she said nothing,” activist Nikolai Alexeyev was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Luzhkov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov all spoke at the unveiling ceremony in the gardens of Moscow State University, but none of them mentioned the gay issue.

Biographers have described Whitman as homosexual and U.S. gay activists have claimed him as symbol of their movement.

Mr. Alexeyev had called on Mrs. Clinton to denounce what he called entrenched and degrading homophobic attitudes in Russia at a news conference Tuesday, but Mrs. Clinton’s aides said they were not aware of any such requests.

Mr. Luzhkov, in an awkward attempt at passionate literary criticism, glorified Whitman and said that his poetry “is permeated with the spirit of American optimism.”

Homosexuality was a crime in Russia until 1993, and homophobic attitudes remain widespread despite a growing — though mostly underground — gay movement. Because Mr. Luzhkov has never allowed a gay parade, activists have taken their struggle to the European Court of Justice, which is scheduled to rule on the issue early next year.

The new statue was built nine years after a statue of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was erected at the George Washington University in Washington. Both were created by Russian sculptor Alexander Bourganov. He said Tuesday that the Whitman opening had been delayed and been politically difficult, but he did not elaborate.

“Whitman transcended his sexuality in his art, and I would like to thank Mayor Luzhkov for welcoming him in his city and have absolutely nothing to say about those things,” James W. Symington, a former Democratic congressman from Missouri and representative of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, which raised money for the statue, told AP.