Ingrid Burke, RAPSI

“Free Angela Davis!” – a bailiff hollered at me in Russian by way of a greeting as his colleague sifted curiously through my passport. Prior to shipping me off to St. Petersburg to cover the Madonna gay propaganda trial, my boss had warned me that court security might have a tough time sorting out what to do with an American attempting to gain entry to the courtroom.

To my pleasant surprise, there was no need for concern. Once the bailiffs successfully navigated my passport cover page and confirmed that my purse was free of explosives, they started joking around, telling me in Russian that they had never seen a native American before.

We had been told prior to our arrival that the courtroom would be quite small and the battle for seats quite brutal. As it turned out, “small” meant about the size of a walk-in closet. As journalists began accumulating in the corridor of the building that looked remarkably like a space ship from an old sci-fi novel, the tension was palpable.

As it became clear that very few of us would make it into the courtroom, journalists began scrambling for anything to send to press, which is probably how I ended up speaking with a major Russian television channel.

As I let the TV audience know that America’s gay community would probably support Team Madonna if forced to pick sides in the present case… considering Team Plaintiff’s raison d'etre is that of fighting the perceived threat of homosexuality, and then confirming that San Franciscans would probably wage a coup if an anti-gay propaganda law passed in the city, my colleague was busy negotiating our safe passage into the courtroom.

He succeeded, with honors. By some miracle, not only were we allowed into the courtroom without issue – we were among only a small handful of journalists afforded seats. Fantastic seats, really. We were actually sandwiching the judge.

A bit of background: Madonna gave a speech during her concert in Saint Petersburg last summer urging fans not to be awful to gay people. She invited those in attendance to don pink arm bands as a show of solidarity with and support for the city’s gay community. Appalled by this message, nine anti-gay activists of sorts filed claims last August amounting to approximately $10.7 million against Madonna and the show’s venue and supporters, charging that she had violated a city ordinance banning gay propaganda.

It was clear from the start of proceedings who was who. With the exception of their ringleader Daria Dedova, the aggrieved parties sat tightly crunched together on one side of the table, looking absolutely traumatized by the havoc Madonna had wreaked on their city. Dedova sat on the defense side of the table due to size constraints, along with the three smirking lawyers representing the defense. The parties would maintain these general attitudes for the next several hours, until becoming communally unhinged during the judge’s deliberation. But more on that later.

Once Judge Vitaly Barkovsky arrived and established that neither side was too heartbroken over Madonna’s failure to attend – and in fact that neither side was sure whether she had actually been summoned – the proceedings began, and then quickly spiraled into a bit of a madhouse.

The plaintiffs cited a wide variety of materials in formulating their general argument that Madonna’s presence in St. Petersburg had proven detrimental to society, to the extent of giving seemingly equal weight during opening statements to the bible, Madonna’s Facebook page, and a Wikipedia article on LGBT. Delivering the opening statement, a representative for the plaintiffs’ side began by speaking with poise and confidence, but quickly nose-dived. By the end of his statement, his hands were trembling rapidly as he wiped sweat from his forehead and seemed to be gasping for breath, which is fair. By this point I think we were all fairly confident that our suitcase of a courtroom would soon run out of oxygen, and we would all be left martyrs to our respective causes.

As the defense attorneys representing the concert’s venue and promoters took turns explaining why the plaintiffs’ claims were baseless and the amount in damages sought ludicrous, they maintained smugly confident demeanors.

In fact, as the parties continued to pass the ball throughout the course of the day, the dynamic began to feel a bit like a typical American high school faceoff: the cool kids v. the nerds. The defense attorneys exuded a confidence that seemed to amplify the hysteria on the plaintiffs’ side of the table. This would prove instrumental to the hysteria that ensued during the judge’s deliberation.

The hours stretched on, but the hearing never gave way to boredom. When it came out that Dedova is a huge Stalinist, passionately dedicated to the cause of changing Volgograd’s name back to Stalingrad, one of the defense attorneys suggested she may as well jump on the Hitler bandwagon too. To demonstrate Madonna’s efforts to normalize homosexuality, the plaintiffs projected a photograph of two topless cartoon men making out next to an image of a straight couple doing the same. Dedova lamented that this sort of image makes gay seem normal. To this the judge wondered aloud why it doesn’t bother the plaintiffs when men embrace and dance in fountains each year to celebrate Russia’s Navy Day.

After we watched footage of the speech at the center of the controversy, wherein Madonna urged Saint Petersburg concert goers to treat everyone – homosexuals included – with love, the judge inquired into the lack of children seemingly present at the concert. Central to the plaintiffs’ claim was the theory that Madonna’s pro-gay ways had been damaging to the city’s children. With this, the plaintiffs began a frantic search for footage of children – any children – that may have been present during the speech. Once they found footage of one singular child in attendance during the speech – one who notably could not understand a word of English, so will presumably survive the experience unscathed – the plaintiffs high-fived themselves and the judge departed to his chambers for deliberation.

I suppose it was to be expected that things should descend into madness once the judge left the parties to their own devices. No sooner did the judge shut the door to his chambers – which were adjacent to our courtroom – than did Dedova launch into a tirade directed at me, yelling abuses that I – fortunately or unfortunately – could not understand.

When I didn’t respond to Dedova, the other women among the plaintiffs joined in, scolding me and I had no idea for what. My mind raced for what I could have done… was I not supposed to have been taking pictures in the courtroom? Did I fail to stifle my laughter during one of the day’s more outlandish moments? They found out I provided a San Franciscan perspective to the TV channel, didn’t they? They think I’m some kind of gay American spy. Dammit- why didn’t I just tell them that San Franciscan does not necessarily mean gay?

As it turned out, the plaintiffs had noticed that throughout the course of the day, Twitter hadn’t taken too kindly to their cause. Apparently Dedova was a specific target for Twitter harassment. And for whatever reason, it was decided that I was the culprit.

I kept my head down, hoping that either the whole thing would blow over or that the judge would soon return and grant our escape from this chaos. As I busied myself with anything I could on my phone – anything to avoid eye contact with Dedova and the other women who seemed to be out for blood, I began to hear murmurings of RAPSI.

In fact, the defense attorneys stumbled upon RAPSI’s broadcast (which was present both in Russian and English), and promptly began cracking up as they read in Russian my colleague’s account of some antics that had filled the past several hours. They began raging even harder when they switched to RAPSI’s Twitter account. The other journalists hovering by the doorway began to shove their microphones in the faces of the plaintiffs and my colleague as they exchanged words over the image we had projected of their side throughout the course of the day. My colleague was blamed for the claimants’ misfortune.

Tensions continued to escalate as Judge Barkovsky spent upwards of an hour crafting his decision. Sweaty tensions, suffering from a serious lack of oxygen. It felt like Christmas came early this year when Judge Barkovsky finally returned. I waited with bated breath, half expecting the plaintiffs to call mistrial based on their RAPSI-induced rage. Fortunately, everyone behaved themselves as the judge let it be known that the plaintiffs would get nothing except the bit of debt accrued from having to pay the defendants’ legal fees.