JUST A FEW YEARS AGO only a handful of scholars and activists had anything to say about gay Russians. Recently though, thanks to the conjunction of the Olympics and the passage of various anti-gay laws in Russia, it seems like everyone has had to confront it: cultural figures like Harvey Fierstein, who penned an op-ed in The New York Times; Stephen Fry, who included Russia in his documentary on gay rights; Dustin Lance Black and Gus van Sant, who went to Petersburg for the Side by Side film festival; activists like Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, and Queer Nation, who staged demonstrations; President Obama, who chose gay and lesbian athletes to send as the official delegation to the Olympics. The press regularly asked President Putin, the IOC, and Olympic athletes their positions on the issue of gays in Russia.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know: What is life like for gays in Russia? The question often comes with the implication that gay life there is a dark, dire affair, lived in fear and secrecy. High-profile laws and Western coverage of their passage have advanced this paradigm: laws such as the ban on “gay propaganda” and the ban preventing citizens of any country that allows marriage equality from adopting Russian orphans. Some critics have claimed that this paradigm is a distortion created by Western journalists; others, particularly left-leaning scholars, suggest that the direness of the situation for gay Russians has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Putin himself has pointed out that the criticism is hypocritical: there are, after all, anti-gay laws on the books in many US states, not to mention recent moves in several states to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.
Amid all the vocal criticism and hand wringing, one has to wonder: what do gay Russians themselves have to say about being gay in Russia? It turns out a lot, and 29 of their life stories are revealed in their own words in the new collection Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon.
It’s a fascinating volume, revealing the variety and the humanity of LGBT life in Russia. The narratives are translated in both directions, since some were originally collected in Russian, while others were told in English by Russians who had emigrated to the US. The translations, edited by Gessen and Huff-Hannon, are so conversational and fluent that it would be hard to tell the original language without the notes. About half of the men’s stories originated in a similar collection published in Russia in February 2013 in the journal Afisha. Those strike me as a bit more disjointed and unfocused, and I’m not sure why exactly those particular stories were selected — perhaps the editors found a gender imbalance in their original interviews, or perhaps it’s just coincidence.
It’s also not clear why many of the stories collected here are love stories: whether it was the coincidence of the Olympics with Valentine’s Day, or the romance of the first story told to Huff-Hannon, or an effort to focus on love and romance to silence the usual homophobic critics of gay rights, who always think only of sex. One tells of two women who lived thousands of miles apart, but met over the internet, fell in love, and eventually moved to New York. Another tells of a lesbian couple that celebrates the anniversary of their meeting each month with a rose to commemorate a first gift. A third features two women who met and fell in love at 19, then broke up a few years later. They both married men and had children, but reconnected and finally moved in together 20 years after they first met. On a visit to the US, one male couple was so inspired by the wedding of two men in the National Cathedral that they proposed to one another, managing to squeeze in their own wedding in New York and a honeymoon in Miami before returning to Moscow a few weeks later. Another lesbian couple celebrated what they refer to as “unsanctioned weddings”: in Verona, Ryazan, Suzdal, and Moscow.
Of course the lives of LGBT Russians are not always rosy. Many had problems with their families, like the young lesbian couple whose well-off parents tried to separate them by cutting them off financially, or by shipping one off to school in another country for a year, or telling one girl she could have any car she liked if she’d only break off the relationship. One woman’s parents kidnapped their daughter’s child and attempted to take him away through legal means. Another father hit his lesbian daughter until her lip bled. Many of the stories tell of bullying in school, harassment or beatings on the street. A few casually mention murders and suicides of friends.
And of course, any who participate in protests or pride demonstrations also have stories of beatings and arrests. Some of these stories are particularly harrowing, like the young man who invited someone to his apartment, someone who later returned with a friend who hit him over the head with a bottle and stole everything he had. The victim couldn’t call an ambulance or report the crime to the police, because he would have had to explain how it happened. Another man who had lost his job was approached by the FSB and asked to cooperate as an informant in exchange for getting his job back, which he was told could be arranged. They knew everything about him and his relationship. He refused, but then his boyfriend was kidnapped and threatened in order to increase the pressure. That’s when they decided to leave the country.
The theme of emigration, either actual or imagined, runs through many of the stories. Some left Russia years ago, others left this year, and still others regret that they don’t have easily-exportable professions (like specialists in Russian law).
How different are these Russians from Americans? Just after the fall of the Soviet Union, Laurie Essig and David Tuller spent time in Russia among and wrote about queer Russians there in two books: Essig’s a sociological study based on her dissertation (Queer in Russia), Tuller’s a more journalistic account for a wider audience (Cracks in the Iron Closet). Both found that Russians did not subscribe to American-style gay or lesbian identity, but rather claimed a fluid and ill-defined subjectivity that was somehow liberatingly queer. A lot seems to have changed in the past 20 years. Between travel abroad and the internet, Russians, who used to be more isolated, have come into contact with a global gay and lesbian identity, and many have embraced it wholeheartedly. Most of the protagonists in Gay Propaganda identify as gay or lesbian. Furthermore, they even seem to replicate life stories often heard among US gay and lesbian people: several of the men say things like “I knew I was gay by the time I was 13.” One boy knew he was different at age six, because he was attracted to the male hero rather than the beautiful heroine in a fantasy film. Though some women say similar things, there are more stories about women who met their lovers after they had been married to men for years. Many of the men have never been attracted to women. In the case of those who have slept with women, most describe it in terms of the pressure to have children or even something like rape: “I could probably be aroused by a lamppost,” says one, “nonetheless, having sex with a woman felt unnatural.”
Yet many Russians, including lawmakers and many self-styled experts on the topic, still maintain that being gay is not a stable and immutable identity, but rather something that is acquired. The reason the law against gay propaganda is supported by most non-LGBT Russians is that they believe virtually anyone can be turned gay, and that most gays in Russia have been recruited or somehow converted by propaganda, or that they became gay because it’s trendy and fashionable. In a televised debate, a young Russian Duma delegate told the story of his college roommate, who made the mistake of wandering into a gay bar. Inside, someone pushed him up against a wall and kissed him, which turned him gay. On one of the anti-gay specials that have become too frequent on Russian TV in the last year, the editor of the magazine Culture claimed that when she worked as a theater critic, she saw many young red-blooded straight men who came to Moscow from the provinces and were gradually converted into being gay. “Gays are made,” she said, “not by mama and papa, but by hairdressers.” Because LGBT people are a threat to Russia’s traditional values and its birthrate, Russians want to protect children from being lured into this seductive lifestyle (never mind that the real experiences of gay people in Russia, especially LGBT youth, are often not exactly attractive). Hence the law to prevent minors from accessing any information that might make LGBT relationships look anything other than repulsive, or that might suggest that LGBT relationships are equal to straight relationships.
The new law is most dangerous for same sex couples with kids, whose day-to-day lives involve breaking this law. This is what motivated Masha Gessen, who is raising three kids with her female partner, to record a call to arms to oppose the measure: “we would be in violation of the ‘homosexual propaganda’ bill every time we touched, kissed, or neglected to tell our children that our family was not equal to the neighbors.’” At least a third of the couples in the book have kids, even some of the men, and one lesbian couple is taking in gay youth in need of housing after being kicked out by their parents.
Though there are some unusual family structures in the collection, the reason for the absence of even more of these is hinted at by Masha Gessen: “I failed to convince any older LGBT people, those who lived through the experience of being gay in the USSR —and, often, unconventional family arrangements that defy Western-style characterization–to talk to us.” Another gap is at the opposite end of the age span: there are no gay youth, and if you think that is because we don’t know their stories, you’d be wrong. The project “Children-404 LGBT Teens. We Exist” has gathered their first person narratives on Facebook and its Russian equivalent VKontakte since March of 2013. The moderator was recently cleared of violating the law against gay propaganda, though it’s hard to see how she escaped prosecution. Gessen says they didn’t include these because they weren’t love stories, and they’re also submitted anonymously, so it would be difficult to track down the authors for permission to publish them. That’s too bad, because if anything disproves the idea that gay people in Russia are turned gay by propaganda, it’s these stories of LGBT youth who come out against overwhelming opposition and ubiquitous anti-gay propaganda from parents, media, classmates, and teachers.
Still, the collection includes a wide variety of entries from people with very different backgrounds. There is one trans man whose girlfriend has stood by him since before his transition. One respondent is HIV positive. Some are well-off lawyers, others activists who barely make ends meet. Some have been covered in the press: Oleg Dusaev, a music critic who came out and lost his job; Andrei Tanichev, the owner of Sochi’s now-famous gay club Mayak, who was interviewed by Buddy Cole and dozens of foreign journalists; Elvina Yuvakaeva, co-chair of the Russian LGBT sports federation; Andrei Smirnov, who lost his job with the Moscow mayor’s office after coming out in the pages of Afisha. Seven of the respondents, though, opted to remain anonymous, which given Smirnov’s experience is understandable. Some of these also provide insight into the mindset of closeted Russians. “Sasha,” for example, says, “The only reason my parents don’t know is that they’ve never asked whether I’m seeing anyone.” But then he says, “Gay friends have told me stories about having bad experiences coming out to families or at work, but nothing of the sort ever happened to me.” His boyfriend, also anonymous, says that it’s insulting and insane to be talking to a journalist about his private life. Still, they do agree that the “whole stupid situation was created by the idiots who passed the anti-gay laws.”
As the editors state, Gay Propaganda is not intended for a wide audience. Gessen calls it a kind of samizdat, like the underground literature in Soviet days. Part of its function is to reassure readers of the very existence of people like them. That’s why the editors have chosen to make the collection bilingual, and to distribute it for free in the Russian Federation. Russians, who are very skilled in finding free internet content, will be able to download the book online if they can’t find a paper copy. But non-Russian speakers should read it too. The texts are accessible oral history, conversational, and even though they’re short, some of the entries have remarkably varied and twisted plots. Many are quite witty as well, and one is left both with an appreciation for these people’s resilience in the face of hardship and with a sense of our common humanity. No doubt that’s exactly what the law against gay propaganda wants to forbid.
Professor Moss teaches Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies in the Women and Gender Studies Program and has also taught Hungarian and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. At Middlebury he has also conducted the Middlebury Russian Choir and advised the Middlebury Open Queer Alliance.