Russia’s Gay Revolution, As Seen by An American Abroad

For an American living in Russia, many things are funny. The laughter never stops, really. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually only here to collect amusing stories that I can tell at cocktail parties to impress girls. I like to think of it as an investment for the future. Among these delights are watching straight club-goers sing and dance unironically – in unison – to “YMCA,” listening to Will Smith’s “Getting’ Jiggy wit It” while waiting on line at the grocery store, and getting kicked off a bus for not having exact change. (All of these things happened to me in the span of one week, by the way.) When I sat down to write this article about the anti-gay bill that was almost passed in St. Petersburg last month, though, I couldn’t think of a single comical thing.

 

The truth is that sometimes being queer in Russia is terrifying. Russian society, although mostly secular, is overwhelmingly homophobic – even in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Maybe you read about the anti-gay bill that majority party United Russia nearly passed last month. During the last two weeks of November, United Russia (the party of Prime Minster Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev) introduced a bill that would make “propaganda of homosexuality” – whatever that means – illegal in St. Petersburg. Thanks to the efforts of activists in this city and pressure from the international community, the bill was not voted on a second time. It’s possible that this legislation may come up again in St. Petersburg, especially since laws like this are already in place in two other Russian cities. As of last week, the city Kostroma (500 miles outside of Moscow) might be the latest to join the ranks in introducing an anti-gay bill with dangerous implications.

Manny de Guerre, the founder of Russia’s only LGBT film festival, thinks that the bill in St. Petersburg was a response to increased visibility that the queer community has seen in the last few years. I asked her a few questions about the protests that were organized in response to the bill, and about the Russian state of the gay in general.

via audrey marsanov

Rachel: Were you surprised to hear about the bill? In your opinion, is it a response to anything in particular? Why now?

Manny: A similar law has been in place in Ryazan since 2006. In September of this year the same law was brought into force in Archangelsk. It came therefore as no surprise that there has been an attempt to introduce this law in St. Petersburg.

The bill was initiated by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov and it has been perceived by many as a pre-election stunt in order to gain the conservative vote and boost popularity for United Russia, whose ratings have been flagging in recent months. This is one possible interpretation.

In the last four years the St. Petersburg LGBT community has become more visible.

In 2007-8 Side by Side was founded, the organization Coming Out came into existence, and LGBT Network became based in St. Petersburg. During this four-year period these different organizations have been working on different fronts, pushing for openness, bringing LGBT rights and issues to the fore. We have been successful in creating a public space for the discussion and increasing the visibility of [the LGBT community]. This of course provokes a reaction from oppositional voices – particularly within the government, the orthodox church, the far right, and ultra-national groups who through a range of repressive and threatening measures attempt to hinder the progress of our work – this proposed law [is] their reaction to our success.

 

R: How did the idea for the flash mobs come about? Have the demonstrations been successful so far?

M: In Russia it is very difficult to organize mass demonstrations or meetings. All meetings have to be sanctioned by the authorities and this process takes about ten days. More often than not the request to have a demonstration or meeting is rejected by the administration. We have been taking the issue to the streets by organizing one-person pickets and flash mobs. One-person pickets are permitted by the law and it is not necessary to have approval from the authorities. A flash mob is an alternative form of street protest and at present it does not fall under any description under Russian law, making it possible to use this method. These methods are not new and have been used by LGBT activists and others in recent years.

These demonstrations have been very successful. They have generated mass interest in the press and media bringing LGBT issues to the public on a level that has never been seen before. The press is usually indifferent to LGBT and if they do cover [gay issues] they tend to focus on the scandalous side of things. This time, however, there has been much more positive reporting, real analysis of the situation, and journalists seeing the absurdity of the law and communicating it to their readers.

 

R: Do you think the general attitude toward the LGBT community in St. Petersburg has changed in the last 15 years?

M: Russian society is still incredibly homophobic. These recent statistics clearly show that. Even though these statistics are very negative, people’s attitudes are beginning to change. Since October 2008 when Side by Side attempted our first festival, 10,300 people have attended our events and we have distributed over 18,000 information brochures on a range of topics including coming out, homophobia, transgender identities, LGBT parenthood, and religion. 25% of our audience is non-LGBT.

Things are changing towards LGBT and people are gradually being won over but there is an incredible amount of work to do. The State is constantly hindering our work, though –by closing down venues where we have festivals, or by introducing laws like this. It slows down the process incredibly and it will be many years and much work before people are tolerant toward the LGBT community in Russia.

Gulya Sultanova

R: How would you describe the LGBT movement in Russia generally? Where do you see it headed?

M: In the early 1990’s there was quite a lot of LGBT activism going on, but it turned out not to be very effective. After article 121 [which criminalized gay sex] was abolished, it all fizzled out quite quickly. There was a lull period, and then in 2005 Nikolai Alexeyev attempted to start Gay Pride in Moscow. For a few years that was what characterized the LGBT movement. [Pride parades are] seen by many to be counterproductive – year after year only a handful of activists [are] going out on the Moscow streets, and the movement [is] not growing, and attitudes towards [are] LGBT staying the same.

Now the movement is more varied, with different organizations doing different kinds of work – not just in St. Petersburg but throughout the whole of Russia. The LGBT movement is strong in St. Petersburg. Organizations work effectively and have good grassroots support. This experience needs to be passed on to [smaller cities], which is what the festival tries to do – we also work in Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Archangel.

In the present climate it is difficult to say how it is going to turn out. Reading Putin’s comments [in which he talks about "protecting Russia’s sovereignty" from foreign influence], it seems that things are going to start moving backward fast – not just for the LGBT movement, but for the whole of Russian society. I hope that the opposite case is true!

Friends at home are asking me what’s going on with all the protests – both for the bill last month and the more widespread demonstrations in response to the general election this month. I never know what to say. Trying to read through the news and make sense of it all, though, I can say this. I find it encouraging that huge numbers of people are protesting the party that introduced this bill. Obviously, not all of these protesters are queer activists. Most of them, it seems, are just angry and tired of being lied to by an unpopular administration. But if older and younger generations of Russians can come together against United Russia and Putin, isn’t that a step in the right direction?

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19 Comments

  1. Pingback: Russia’s Gay Revolution, As Seen by An American Abroad – Autostraddle | twitar

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    Really glad to see this on Autostraddle. My family immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when I was a toddler. I would really love to go back and spend a year or two teaching English and getting to know the aunts, uncles, and cousins we left behind, but the reports I’ve heard from friends of the unchecked, often violent homophobia that happens in the area keeps me stateside. Even living openly in the U.S.’ Deep South feels a hundred times safer to me than living openly in Eastern Europe. Anyway, thank-you Rachel R. and Manny de Guerre for being far braver than I. Would love to read more about your experiences.

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    The only two Russians I talked to about the lgbtq thing with while in Russia were both supportive— one was an older gay man, the other a straight guy in his late 20s. Things are definitely changing, if slowly. The most frustrating thing for me is when homophobia is couched in terms of Russian nationalism— the lgbtq rights movement is something of western origin, and therefore we should reject it because we are russian and don’t need the west. russia breaks my heart sometimes :(

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    Thank you so much for this article!!! *here you can insert my round eyes and face as i’ve seen it here*)))))
    I’ve been quite a (mute) fan of Autostraddle since last June, and as a Russian bisexual girl from St.Petersburg living in Moscow I’ve never even thought about finding this sort of information here.
    Though we all were shattered by this attempt, it was never a question that smth like that can indeed happen here. we like to name us “european” people, but there’s a long way ahead of us towards european tolerance and lifestyle.
    Have you already heard that the law should actually prevent “propaganda of pedophilia, sodomy, lesbianism”?? All in one law? Like, in these exact terms – that even in russian sound completely inappropriate and obsolete??? and they tempt to align LGBT and pedophilia, because it makes people fear for their children, and fear brings defency and ignorance, and fear helps these politicians to keep the power.
    we have no real democracy, and when the educated part of the society, that lives in Moscow/st.Pete is partly okay with LGBT and acknowledges that smth like that indeed can be found in life, and it’s nor the choice neither the option, the majority of Russians are oblivious to this truth.
    even my closest friends decided to think about me&my ex-girlfriend as a temporary fling and me being too disappointed in guys.
    Thank you once more for posting this, it’s really important that other people can hear our voices. Not that you should pity us, but – I can tell you, things get better, and we are part of this folk, and we hope.

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    I really appreciate this article bringing the issue to my attention. Even in America being Russian and coming out feels like a double stigma especially considering I live in a cluster known as Little Russia. I have to hide it from everyone in my family aside from my mother and my grandmother for risk of being completely alienated by my society. It’s nice to know that back home people are fighting for LGBT rights and it gives me home that maybe…if things are okay there then my family and my neighbors will see what they’re doing is wrong and accept me.

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    When I was Ukraine (which is only slightly less homophobic), the people I met with who were supportive of LGBTQ* rights were well-educated and knew English (i.e. they were aligned with the Western world). Hopefully as generations become more exposed to Western liberalism, it’ll rub off on a society still grappling with the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s just another example of how other parts of the world have more serious issues to contend with first before LGBTQ* rights can be brought to the forefront =\

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    This is a nice article and we should talk more about the craziness of being gay in Russian Federation.

    But, I think that last bill that we’re all unhappy about actually came about from recycling an old bill by Fair Russia, which is an opposition party (For a link in English, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_Russia). Every single “opposition” party to United Russia is homophobic with a notable exception of Yabloko, whose leader has said some anti-gay things as well. So, it is quite unlikely that opposition would unite with gay leaders against United Russia. In fact, on gay matters, it is way more likely that the majority of Russian population would support the ruling party.

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    I can kind of relate to how you felt as a person identifying as queer or gay in Russia. I went to Ukraine for volunteer exchange this summer, and it was pretty awkward when asked about my short hair and androgynous dressing style. I felt that the Ukrainian young people wanted to ask me more, but they refrained from doing so.
    I was odd enough as an Asian, but my looks somehow just drew even more stares and suspicion.

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    I am also working in Russia now, and Dorothy I’m not in Moscow/St. Petersburg anymore (not that it was great there either). I’ve realized over the last few weeks that, to many people, our government’s concern with LGBT rights in Russia is a joke and a good sign that they don’t have anything more important to do. It made me long for Pat Robertson because, you know, at least he sees LGBT rights as a thing, and a threat. The very concept of LGBT rights as a thing that exists was used as a punchline on a comedy show I saw the other night. I’d take threat over nonexistence as a step forward anyday.

    So I agree with everybody else that it’s super encouraging to see people talking about here, and hear from other Russian/InRussia straddlers who are experiencing it and have insight, and to feel like someone at all in these places gives a damn!

    Luckily I’m multisexual and have a history of boyfriends to hide behind in conversation and expected to spend my time here celibate anyway, so I can try to forget about it a lot of the time and have a life. Otherwise it would be oppressively depressing.

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    It’s ironic that Christian Russia likes to consider itself to be European, civilised and sophisticated while Muslim Turkey (where I live openly with my partner), is viewed by many outsiders as backward, oppressive and undemocratic.

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