On June 11, 2013, the Duma passed a law against “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” It is awaiting passage through the upper house of the Duma and the signature of President Vladimir Putin to come into force. With dangerously vague language and transparent mendacity, this law sets out to abolish the mere mention of homosexuality in Russia. Violators—as individuals and organizations—are to be fined for “propagandizing” on the streets, in the media, and online. Foreigners who violate the law are subject to arrest, fines, and deportation.
The Duma spokeswoman for this law is Elena Mizulina, who, in the course of the past week’s television appearances, has called for taking South Park off the air, potentially including oral sex in the definition of “nontraditional sexual relations,” and passing more laws that will ban adoptions of Russian orphans by same-sex couples abroad and, furthermore, take away children adopted by same-sex couples in Russia. The anti-propaganda law was passed by the Duma 436-0, with one abstention.
You can’t blame the Russians who stayed home, not joining fifty or so pro-gay-rights protesters in front of the Duma on June 11. The LGBT supporters were pelted with stinging nettles, rotten eggs, bottles of piss; they were beaten as police looked on and arrested for participating in an illegal protest. Their adversaries, other than the police, were agitators hired through VKontakte (a Russian social networking site) and paid small amounts of money to antagonize them. These included a group of pre-teen boys who ganged up on one man, kicking him until his face bled. The fight was broken up by photographers. More than twenty of the pro-LGBT protesters were arrested.
We are presenting translations of journalist Elena Kostyuchenko’s call to arms, poet Kirill Medvedev’s story of breaking the rotten eggs intended for gay protesters, and journalist Masha Gessen’s account of the beginning of the struggle for gay rights in post-Soviet Russia.
Elena Kostyuchenko (Source):
On June 11, the Duma will pass this law in its second and third readings at the same time.
Why wait, right? The deputies want to go on vacation with clean consciences.
I implore you to read the law. It is full of complicated constructions, but look at this:
The propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors, as manifested in the distribution of information intended to indoctrinate nontraditional sexual orientations in minors, make nontraditional sexual relations appear attractive, present biased perspectives of the social equality of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, and impose information regarding nontraditional sexual relations, inspiring interest in such relations
This is the revised law. As you can see, the word “homosexuality” has disappeared—it simply does not exist in Russian legislation, they had to change it to something else. The deputies also attempted to define “propaganda.” Bingo—it’s “the distribution of information.” . . . Information liable to make people think that homosexuals and heterosexuals may be equal, or even inspire interest in the question of their equality, must be forbidden.
Many people have joked about what exactly “nontraditional” sexual relations would entail. Do oral sex or masturbation or BDSM count? Can we ask Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina? I am not going to make any jokes here, I only want to draw your attention to several facts.
Websites found containing this information will be blocked without judicial review. The fines for people who use the Internet to discuss LGBT issues have been increased to up to 100 thousand rubles [~3126 USD]. The sanctions for media outlets publishing neutral discussions of LGBT issues have been increased to fines of up to 1 million rubles [~31,257 USD] or being shut down for three months.
This brave new world is coming very soon. There’s more, too. Mizulina has shared her vision for the future: “We also need to codify the prohibition of adoption by single-sex couples in Russia. It does happen.” It’s true: it does. This initiative will probably wait until the fall session of the Duma. The tens of thousands of single-sex couples raising orphans have a few months to go deep into hiding, and the rest, to finish the adoption process.
I want to talk about something else. About two girls who jumped out a window in Novosibirsk when the law was passed in its first reading [in January 2013—Trans.]. Their names were Ksenia Pozdeeva and Tamara Shabunina. One was 17 and the other 14. They wrote their parents, “We’ve had enough of life.”
Every day I read Lena Klimova’s “Kids” project [an online collection of queer Russian teens writing about their experiences—Trans.]. I force myself to read it. And remember my own past. I grew up in a big city, went to a good school. I was in love with a girl from the building next to mine, Kristina. We were friends, but I was afraid to even acknowledge my feelings to myself. I would have died if they had found out in school. I wouldn’t have had the strength to defend myself. This was during Putin’s first term. The United Russia Party was not yet concerned with the morals and obedience of the electorate. Deputy Mizulina was from the same town as me. Back then, she was a funny lady from the Yabloko Party. She never said that people like me shouldn’t have the right to lead normal lives. Once, these retired women collected money and she ended up presenting me with a fur coat—I was a gifted child, defending the honor of my region. The coat was about ten sizes too big for me, but I wasn’t upset. My mother wore it for a long time. In those days, the television wasn’t blasting a stream of bullshit about people who’d fallen in love with “the wrong person” but weren’t afraid to hide. Back then, it was all about terrorism.
Nonetheless, I walked a very thin line. I survived, but many others didn’t.
Now I’ll confess. Every time I read these letters from children, I am ashamed of myself. ASHAMED. These schoolchildren say the words that we, “adults,” should be saying. They support one another, talk each other out of suicide, convince each other that they need to have faith. There is an illegal LGBT organization put together by Moscow teenagers. There are fifty members. Fifty kids who go to protests with a Twitter focusing on the question of whether they should emigrate.
Children can’t emigrate. They can’t truly resist oppression. They aren’t allowed to vote, they can’t attack police officers or participate in the judicial system. They live in hiding and online.
After every protest, I get a phone call from a child. I publish my phone number online, they Google it and call me. They are very business-like, these children. They don’t ramble or whine. They don’t expect my sympathy, they just want advice. What should I do if my social studies teacher says that “it’s great that the government is getting those fags?” Is it indecent to not say anything? I mumble. “I stood up and said something,” the boy tells me. “For the past two months, I’ve been getting Cs instead of As, and I’m not going to graduation. My classmates have been good about it, by the way, better than the teachers. It’s good that they let you in to college based on test scores and not grades.” A girl calls me from St. Petersburg. She’s sitting at Shokoladnitsa [a popular chain café—Trans.], which is closing in fifteen minutes. Her mother had been watching a show with Milonov and, well, she ended up coming out to her. Are there any shelters in St. Petersburg? “I don’t want you to think,” the girl, who is not even 15 and feels very bad for calling me so late, it’s almost midnight, “that I ran away. She opened the door and pushed me out. She’s in shock. I’ll talk to her when she’s ready. Absolutely. I just need somewhere to spend the night.”
They all say “thank you.” I am ashamed that our idiotic silence, our prudent, adult silence, has made their world the way it is.
I think to myself: what if I had gone to the gay parades before 2011, in 2008 or 2007? What if I had been better at writing about what I feel right now, was more together and decisive? Then maybe the social studies teachers would have kept their mouths shut. Maybe United Russia wouldn’t have dared to push a fascist law through the Duma that divides people into classes.
I know that the individual plays an insignificant role in the progress of history. But we do play a role. Which means that the individual does have responsibility.
I do not protest out of hope or faith, but knowledge and shame. Their hands are cold. I know that this disgraceful law will be repealed—it can’t not be. I know that every day it exists, every victorious speech from one of the enraged pack of Duma idiots can lead to a murder or suicide. I am horribly ashamed that I was silent for so long, that all of it has led to these yellow stars on our sleeves.
Two protesters, one of whom was beaten up by a group of young boys. Photo by Ilya Varlamov.
I came to the Duma today to protest the homophobic legislation. On the Mokhovka side of the building I found an impenetrable wall of OMON troops and a girl with a sign that said, I think, “Lesbians are people too.” I came around the other side, along Giorgievskiy Pereulok. OMON, a bunch of journalists, a mass of young “religious activists,” and a small group of protesters, without signs. There’s a guy standing at the entrance to the Duma with a sign denouncing pedophiles. I saw a friend, Gleb Napreenko, and came over to him; he said they’d arrested four people so far. A few guys were standing next to us; one of them had a backpack, and his buddy took an egg out of the backpack [to throw it at the protesters]; there was a whole bag full of eggs in the backpack.
I thought about it for a couple of seconds, then stuck my hand into the backpack, pulled out the eggs, and stomped on them. The guys were confused, at first they didn’t say anything. Then one of them came over with an egg in his hand. We started wrestling, sort of like bulls. I was shaking. I decided that he could easily smear his egg all over my face, so I ripped the egg out of his hand and threw it on the ground. He became very angry, but he kept himself under control. I thought, maybe they’re under orders, you can throw eggs but no actual fighting. We came closer to the bus with the protesters in it. A group of young Christians followed us, and were joined by a few other people.
The guy who’d had the egg comes up to me again. “You gay?” he asks me. I say, no, I’m not gay. Cut it out, he says. You’re gay, right? No, I say, I’m not. Then why are you here? I say I came here to support these people, I don’t want eggs being thrown at them. He says to me, You got egg all over my hand, I want to wipe it off on you. I say, No, don’t wipe it off on me. Gleb says, Let me give you a napkin. The guy says, OK, give me a napkin, but I’m still going to wipe my hand on him. Gleb starts looking in his bag for a napkin, the guy and I start pushing and pulling one another, in the end my shirt is of course covered in egg. Another, bigger guy comes up and says, What, you want gay marriage? I say, Yes, I do, but I’m not really going to discuss this with you right now, in this situation. He says, This is Russia, get it, faggot?
There are more and more of these guys, and Gleb gets hit with an egg, and looking around I see how painfully few friendly faces there are, and I think, fuck, where is everyone, you don’t necessarily have to have a banner or take eggs out of someone’s backpack, if people just showed up and stood here, if just a few hundred people showed up, then things for me right at this moment, and in general, would be absolutely different.
I call my girlfriend on the phone, I know she’s in the neighborhood, and I ask her to come find me—I want to confirm my status as straight, first of all because a “straight supporting LGBT” is, for all its problems, the best strategy for us right now, and second, out of an instinct for self-preservation: my sense is that for these guys, anything at all, without any fear of punishment, can be done to someone who’s gay (and the behavior of the police confirms this constantly), whereas with someone who’s straight it’s a bit more complicated.
The guys don’t take their eyes off us; the bus with the protesters leaves; the OMON starts leaving too, and now it’s just me and Gleb and these dozen guys, and I suggest to Gleb that we head for Tverskaya. We go there, and they follow us. I start walking faster, say goodbye to Gleb, go into the metro, and hear them behind me. I get an egg in the back, run down the escalator, and get on a train. The whole ride home I think about whether I should write about my small heroic act on Facebook. There would be something humble and beautiful about not writing about it. But then I think that such gestures of pure art are really not useful right now. That your privileges, such as they are, whether of being “straight,” that is, a member of the majority, or the privilege of being an author, needs to be used without any shame or shyness, and without being afraid of didacticism—in some part on behalf of those whose much more serious and dangerous heroic acts no one will ever describe or record, for people whom no one listens to, no matter how much danger they put themselves in, and no matter how well they explain themselves.
In short, my friends, I’d like to say to anyone who cares about this stuff: you just need to show up. This is no way minimizes your tremendous accomplishments on intellectual, cultural, and other fronts! But people—in this case, LGBT boys and girls—who are fighting with their bodies for freedom—yours included—sometimes just need your solidarity in the simple form of your physical presence. Otherwise I suspect that in situations such as these they find it very very dark, and lonely. Cheers.
Masha Gessen in August 1991. Photo by Marc Geller.
Masha Gessen on the eve of the protest. During the protest, she was chased down the street and attacked by an Orthodox protester. Then she was arrested.
I’m not a fan of this genre, but I’ll write this because I think that many of the people who will read this post don’t know this story or aren’t thinking about it right now. This photograph, by Marc Geller, is from the beginning of August 1991. Let’s call this Day of Kisses 0. In the foreground, I am kissing Julie Dorf. Six months before this picture was taken, she proposed we turn a completely crazy idea into reality and organize a gay/lesbian film festival and conference (this was before the term LGBT was in use) in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We had partners in both cities, the brave Olga Zhuk and Roman Kalinin, but they had neither money nor experience. We needed to secure funding (which Julie and a number of other people were about to do), figure out the programming, schedule it, organize it, and transport it. It was very scary. Very. In Leningrad, the event went off spectacularly smoothly. Moscow was more difficult: the conference was effectively shut down, but the film festival at the Novorossiisk Theater (now the 35MM) went very well, and it seemed the whole city came. At a certain point, municipal authorities decided they needed to do urgent construction in front of the theater—yes, that’s a tried-and-true approach—and I was being followed around by some beefcake, but altogether it was very cool and not that scary. Even when we staged a kiss-in in front of the statue of Yuri Dolgoruky, no one arrested us or tried to beat us up. This was two weeks before the putsch. In preparation for the conference I went searching for presenters. Igor Semenovich Kon was one of the people who came to the Novorossiisk, for instance. I also found a man named Alexei Nikolaevich whose last name, I am ashamed to say, I have forgotten. He taught law at The People’s Friendship University. His dissertation was on the legislation regulating sexual behavior. He came to the conclusion that the “sodomy” article of the criminal code needed to be repealed. The following year, he was part of the working group developing the new Criminal Code. That ended up taking years. But in 1993, he was able to sneak the repeal of Article 121 onto a completely unrelated presidential decree. The difficulty was that the decree existed, but the Ministry of the Interior never issued an order to release all prisoners incarcerated under that article. That was when Andrew Tobias gave me 5,000 dollars, a crazy sum, which I used to send out very official telegrams and call penal colonies and even go to them in person, working with a strange list, demanding that people be released. Although the origins and veracity of the list were never entirely clear, I nonetheless received telegrams that so-and-so or such-and-such was released. In the end, it seemed we were done. Article 121 was repealed. Clubs were opening in Moscow and St. Petersburg, things were happening, and I thought that it would soon stop being scary, that people would eventually begin coming out from the underground and creating community. The community was forming little by little, but people weren’t coming up out of the underground. Yesterday, I wrote Karen Shainyan that everyone has a right to choose not to be a fighter. The problem is that there is only one real treatment for society-wide homophobia: it can only be diminished as the number of people who personally know gays and lesbians rises. Here is what I want to say: I am very hurt, dear friends and strangers, that you, using your right to remain silent, missed the chance we had in the 90s and even in the 2000s. I am very sad that 22 years have gone by and I am very scared, but I will go and kiss in the streets again, right around where I did it before, and for basically the same reason, only with less hope.