MOSCOW — Supporters considered it a historic moment: two radiant women applied for a marriage license in a Moscow government office, claiming to be the first same-sex female couple to try to marry in Russia.
But a flustered-looking official denied their application Tuesday, a move that gay rights activists say symbolizes the refusal of many Russian officials to recognize the rights of the country's gay and lesbian communities. Registry office director Svetlana Potamoshneva, seemingly embarrassed, handed them a written rejection and said Russian law recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman.
Irina Fedotova and Irina Shipitko said they would not give up.
"We won't stop in midstream," Fedotova told journalists later, saying she and her partner plan to get married in Canada. She said Russia recognizes marriages registered abroad, thus allowing the couple to formalize their relationship.
The event was the first of two this week that will put the issue of gay rights _ which many Russians regard as controversial _ on the public stage in Moscow.
Fedotova and Shepitko sought to marry ahead of a gay pride parade Saturday, scheduled to coincide with the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest. Gay rights activists hope the media covering the event also will focus on their cause.
Radio Netherlands reported Monday that the Dutch singer Gordon would boycott the contest if parade is broken up violently.
Moscow authorities have banned the march, and religious and nationalist groups said Tuesday they have asked for permission to hold a counter-demonstration in central Moscow.
"The gay parade is ... an act of spiritual terrorism," said Mikhail Nalimov, chairman of the Union of Orthodox Christian Youth.
His deputy, Dmitry Terekhov, said the parade was in part aimed at converting people to homosexuality. "This must be stopped by radical methods, but without violence naturally," he said.
In some countries, gays have won increasing acceptance _ including the right to marry _ but in many nations of the former Communist bloc homophobia remains rampant.
Decades of official persecution of Russian gays ended in 1993 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but opposition to gay rights remains widespread. Russian spiritual leaders have claimed that homosexuality threatens the country's traditional values.
There are no official estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms.
Russian gay rights movement leader Nikolai Alexeyev said several gay male couples have attempted to wed since the mid-1990s, but officials rejected those efforts.
In 2006, gay activists trying to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin wall were arrested by riot police and harangued by religious and ultranationalist group members.
Last year, at least one gay rights activist was assaulted during a small protest in Moscow while uniformed police officers stood by and watched.
Dancer and singer Boris Moiseyev, one of Russia's few openly gay pop stars, said in March he received death threats from Muslim activists. His extravagant shows have been banned in several Russian cities, and the Orthodox Church condemned him for "propagating sodomy and sin."
Meanwhile, despite their rejection of a marriage license in Moscow on Tuesday, Fedotova and Shepitko _ wearing suits and bow ties and holding flowers _ held hands and kissed. They said they would continue to fight for recognition of gay rights in Russia.
Fedotova, a 30-year-old public relations consultant, said she has lived through years of threats and intimidation and wants to a marriage equal to that of heterosexual couples.
She said she met Shipitko, a 32-year-old fashion designer, five years ago and they have both "reached marriage age for sure."
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard contributed to this report.