Rev. James Mulcahy sat with a group of LGBT activists in the Russian city of Samara last July, having a cup of tea and talking about nothing in particular.
Mulcahy, who served as pastor for Rochester, N.Y.’s Metropolitan Community Church from 2000 to 2012, says that the group was barely 20 minutes into its meeting when there was a knock on the door.
“We were raided by four city police, and two camera crews were with them,” he says. “They told me I had to come with them and I wasn’t being arrested; I was being detained. They photographed me and took my fingerprints, so it sure felt like I was being arrested.”
Samara police received an anonymous tip that Mulcahy was performing a same-sex marriage ceremony. He wasn’t, but police were expecting to catch him in the act, and that’s why the camera crews entered the room first, he says.
After retiring as MCC’s pastor, Mulcahy says that he discovered the work he was always meant to do: supporting LGBT activists in Eastern European countries in their fight for acceptance. It’s a job that clearly comes with risks. The LGBT communities in some former Soviet satellite countries are still living discreet and often underground lives out of fear of social rejection, physical attacks and criminalization.
Though homosexuality was illegal in the former Soviet Union, it’s technically not illegal in Russia today. But under President Vladimir Putin’s government, that’s debatable, Mulcahy says.
“I was taken [to a police station] where I was interrogated for four hours,” he says. The lead investigator was from the FSB, the Russian federal security service that is the modern version of the KGB. He had come with the intention of making an arrest and wasn’t pleased with the outcome, Mulcahy says.
“I was not allowed to have an attorney with me at any point,” he says. “I was not allowed to have my own interpreter, and the interpreter that they gave me was working for the police. I understand enough Russian to know that he wasn’t translating everything to me.”
Mulcahy would have gone to court immediately, but it was a holiday weekend in Russia. He did get to speak with an attorney just before he entered the courtroom, but she was not allowed to go into court with him.
Mulcahy was charged with improperly providing religious services on a visitor’s visa, something not to be taken lightly in Russia. He made the equivalent of several motions in Russian courts to delay the trial until he could have a lawyer of his choice. He also asked to have witnesses with him, and asked if someone would go to his hotel room and get his medication. All of his motions were denied.
“My trial lasted for four hours,” he says. “The TV stations were allowed to broadcast in the courtroom, and the nine o’clock nightly news, both local and national, reported the verdict. I was fined about 2,000 rubles, which is about $32, and given five days to leave the country.”
Mulcahy is also banned from returning to Russia for three years, but those that know him say he will continue his work in some way.
Pastor Todd Goewey, now the pastor at Pittsburgh’s own MCC church, served with Mulcahy years ago in Rochester. Gowey says Mulcahy was crucial in growing Rochester’s MCC congregation. “Jim is an amazing man. I knew it the first time I met and worked with him,” Gowey says. “It was Jim’s calling to go to Eastern Europe, meet with gay and lesbian people there, and let them know that they could indeed have a church, that it was OK to acknowledge their faith, and that God does love them.
“He’s truly a man of God, humble and unassuming. He’s no different to me than other men who have answered God’s call to make changes throughout the world; I see him as Paul or St. Augustine.”
A few years ago, Russia enacted a law banning “gay propaganda.” The law is supposed to protect children from receiving LGBT information, but it is subject to wide interpretation and fuels anti-gay sentiment and attacks on LGBT individuals across the country, according to some human-rights reports.
Some Russian leaders want to expand and strengthen the gay-propaganda law.
“Russia is a difficult place for LGBT people right now, and the law gets worse and worse,” Mulcahy says. “And it’s not just LGBT people; it’s any religion that isn’t Russian Orthodox Christianity.”
But in some respects, repressive government actions aren’t as effective as they were prior to social media, and LGBT activists throughout the Eastern European region use social media to their advantage.
And in Russia, LGBT activists tend to play a cat-and-mouse game with police: waving gay-pride flags in public or releasing rainbow-colored balloons.
“Sometimes the community will do flash mobs,” Mulcahy says. “They will come together and minutes later, they will be gone. In the last couple of years, though, Russian activists will do it knowing they’ll be caught, beaten and arrested. They’re usually released after paying a fine. But now people are being fined far beyond their ability to pay.”
But there is also room for optimism; many of the people in Eastern Europe are warm and loving when you meet them individually, he says. Mulcahy, who is 72 and not in the best of health, says that he went back to his hotel after the trial and was too sick to get up and get breakfast the next morning.
“The owners, they had all seen the TV reports, and they knew who I was, but they couldn’t have been kinder,” he says. “They brought breakfast up to my room — that’s the level of kindness you find in ordinary people there.”
Mulcahy left Russia four days after his courtroom ordeal. He had a ticket to fly from Samara to Moscow, and then out of the country, but he heard that he could be detained again in Moscow. So a friend helped him get a ticket from Samara directly to Helsinki, instead.
The plan didn’t work, though — police still held him up in the Samara airport.
“They interrogated me again and tried to get me to give up names of activists and their phone numbers, but I didn’t give them any information,” he says. “I knew they weren’t going to send me to some prison someplace, but I won’t pretend it was pleasant. But I think my ministry in Russia was actually enhanced by what they did and how they publicized it.”
Mulcahy still gets emails and letters from Russians thanking him for what he did.
“I have communications from Russians almost every day, one from the Arctic Circle, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for us,’” he says. “What have I done? I got thrown out of the country. But in their eyes, I was willing to suffer what the LGBT community there suffers every day.”
Tim Louis Macaluso is a writer for the City Newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., where this story was originally published. Charlie Deitch contributed to this story.