Six Years Since ‘Gay Propaganda’5 min read

 In Civil Society, Interview, Russia

In 2013, Russia’s State Duma unanimously passed a bill criminalizing the  distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.” The legislation effectively prohibited public gestures of LGBT solidarity and forced Russia’s gay communities underground. Masha Gessen, a writer and LGBT activist, moved her family out of Russia soon after. The next year, she collaborated with Joseph Huff-Hannon on Gay Propaganda: Russian love stories, which collected testimonials from queer Russians in both English and Russian. The stories paint a frightening portrait of Russia as a place of constant violence, of prejudice from friends and family, and where the threat of arrest and state persecution looms around every corner.

A lot has changed since 2014. Although the anti-gay legislation remains, Russia’s queer activist communities have adapted. Through websites, social media pages, and Telegram groups, as well as at discreet meet-ups in private places, you could even say they have thrived in their new underground home. I wanted to get a sense of how queer life in Russia has changed, so I reached out to my friend Denis, in Moscow, and asked him to reflect on Gay Propaganda six years later.

Louis: I wanted to jump off from the story of Gleb Latnik, the Moscow-based activist who was persecuted by authorities for his work supporting LGBT rights in Russia. You and I have talked about activism a few times, and you’ve told me you’re uneasy about it. What shapes the way you feel about LGBT activism? 

Denis: I think that my opinion is formed by two factors: my conformism and the fact that I still belong to the LGBT community. I know that there are a lot of people in Russia suffering from homophobia, but I also know that you might get punished for fighting back either by the government or by some random guy. 

For example: a few days ago a gay man was killed, and then the court acquitted the killer because it was an accident: the gay man fell on a knife. So, I know that it’s good to help other people like you, but who will help me? If you can’t win, then try to fit in, eh?

Louis: Gleb also dreams about “a partner, someone I love.” Broadly speaking, what does dating look like for you? What are your dreams? 

Denis: I want to hold my date’s hand, or to kiss him in the streets without being afraid. It’s always hard to see a cute face in front of you and being unable to show your affection. If you want to kiss someone you need to find a dark alley with no lights, so no one can see you. I want to feel safe with my partner. 

Louis: Realistically, do you see this happening in the near future?

Denis: In Moscow? Maybe. In Chechnya? Probably not. 

Louis: Gleb talks at the end of his piece about emigration – he considers Poland, but in fact he has since moved to the USA. Do you ever think about emigrating away from Russia?

Denis: I was thinking about that a lot in the past. But now I don’t want to. I love Russia with its flaws. I’ve lived here all my life. Besides, if I emigrate, I won’t be able to help my family. For now everything is ok, so I don’t consider emigrating.

Louis: Gay Propaganda was published in 2014, when you were just a kid. Now that you’ve entered adulthood as a gay man, do you find that your world resembles the world depicted in the book? Or have things changed?

Denis: It’s hard to say. I can see much more activism and friendliness in the LGBT community now. Almost all of my examples are from social media: some celebrities support the LGBT movement on social media, for example, Irina Gorbacheva. Yuri Dud (lol) sometimes asks people about their attitude towards LGBT issues. There are some LGBT-themed pages on VK that have a lot of subscribers, where people celebrate wins for LGBT community. I think it helps. 

In 2013 this gay propaganda law was adopted, in 2020 there will be some changes to the constitution and some of them are very traditional-ish. So I expect another wave of homophobia in Russia, like the one in the book.

Louis: Are you afraid?

Denis: No, I’m not afraid. Just a little bit anxious. 

Louis: Only one of the testimonials in Gay Propaganda makes reference to HIV or AIDS, but according to the numbers, HIV is at epidemic levels in Russia. It strikes me that, even though FSB agents might not be knocking on the doors of LGBT activists as often as before, the Russian government’s poor response to the crisis is still a kind of systemic persecution, or at least neglect, of gay men and trans people. From your perspective, how are the resources for prevention and treatment in Moscow?

Denis: I’m worried how the gay community treats it. Some of the guys I’ve met knew about the danger of HIV, but preferred not to take it seriously. I can’t tell you a lot about HIV prevention  or its treatment, but I know that most of the private clinics in Moscow offer HIV tests. There are also AIDS centers in Moscow and they offer free tests, but I was too lazy to go there (it’s too far from my home). 

Louis: Thanks for your time, Denis.

Denis: Thank you! 

Gay Propaganda: Russian love stories was published in 2014 by OR Books. A bilingual English-Russian edition is available on Amazon, and the Russian-only edition is available online for free.

The featured image for this article is adapted from Nikolai Alekseev‘s “Photo of the Moscow Pride on June 1, 2009…” and used under license CC BY-SA 3.0.

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