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

Published: December 27, 2011

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.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.

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