Laurie Essig, a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College, is the author of “Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other.”
Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in Russia, I was in a restaurant with some friends. The meal abruptly ended when we were escorted, at gunpoint, into a back room. The restaurateurs-cum-criminals wanted us to pay them a few hundred dollars or else they would inform our families and employers that we were “pederasts” and “dykes.”
Just a few short years before the fall of the Soviet Union, homosexuality could land you in the gulag or a psychiatric hospital. When we escaped that night, we did not report the incident to the police because there was no legal protection for Russia’s gays and lesbians.
Later, as Russia opened up to the more or less free exchange of ideas, goods and services, it was easy to imagine that life would get better for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. After all, how could a country with haute couture and organic food stores remain stubbornly anti-gay? How could a country with vibrant academic and activist communities not become more like the West in its attitudes toward sexuality?
No such luck. Russia is nearly as difficult a place to be gay today as it was under the Soviet regime.
Gay couples cannot adopt, nor can anyone from a country where same-sex marriage is legal adopt a Russian child. A new law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” makes it a crime to say anything positive to minors about homosexuality.
The anti-gay targeting has a populist streak as well. Ultra-nationalist groups such as Occupy Pedophilia lure young gay men with classified ads, threaten or brutally harass them, then circulate videos of the treatment on social media as a “lesson” to others. Members of the group say homosexuality is as morally reprehensible as pedophilia. At least one young man has apparently died from his injuries. Several more have committed suicide.
Americans, like Lenin before them, are left with the question: What is to be done? On top of the current tension between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, some U.S. activists are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Others are leading a boycott of Russian vodka. Even Lady Gaga is telling Russia’s LGBT community that “we will fight for your freedom.”
But it will take more than boycotts and pop stars to make the country more tolerant. Russia has a very different history of sexuality than the West does, and what is going on today is a result of that history.
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