Kill or cure?

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In Russia, homophobia is not just an attitude, but government policy, with new legislation reinforcing traditional hostility to sexual minorities and violence against gay people as common as ever. Svetlana Reiter discussed the situation with psychologist Vladimir Shakhidzhanian.

Vladimir Shakhidzhanian Svetlana Reiter
19 June 2013

The theme of violence against sexual minorities in Russia took another turn in early May with the vicious murder in Volgograd of 23-year old Vladislav Tornovoy. He was killed in a playground where he was drinking beer with old school friends.  According to evidence presented by the investigating officer, Tornovoy was beaten up, his genitals slashed and his clothes set on fire, and he was also raped with beer bottles (two went in completely and a third half way). Then he had paving stones weighing up to 20kg dropped on his head anything up to 10 times.

During a crime reconstruction, which was done with the participation of the suspects as part of the investigation (a transcript of which appeared online), one of those arrested for the horrific murder confirmed that the motive was homophobia.  When the investigator asked about the motive for the sexual violence, the suspect answered ‘Because he said he was gay.’ Tornovoy’s parents and close friends deny that he was homosexual, but the matter was already completely out of hand.

23-year old Vladislav Tornovoy — horrifically murdered 'because he said he was gay' Photo: vkontakte.com

There is little room for tolerance in today’s Russia: St Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Vitaly Milonov is trying to put a stop to ‘gay filth’; Parliament is debating a draft law which would prevent gay parents adopting Russian orphans; fanatical members of the Orthodox church have taken to beating up gay activists on an almost daily basis.

Last year, the case of 16-year old Ivan Kharchenko came to light. Ivan’s parents had sent him to a closed clinic for drug addicts, with the aim of ‘curing’ him of his homosexuality. The case was widely reported in the press, but surprised no one. People are no longer imprisoned for homosexuality, but parents regularly present their children to be cured from the ‘gay infection’ to doctors of every kind, from practitioners of traditional medicine to quacks.

Vladimir Shakhidzhanian is one of the few LGBT experts able to explain the nature and development of Russia’s gay culture.  A journalist and psychologist, he was for many years a research scholar in the laboratory of Dr Aron Isaakovich Belkin [1927-2003], the Russian psychiatrist who studied transsexuality and was president of the Russian Psychoanalytical Society. Among other things, Shakhidzhanian has studied issues surrounding homo- and transsexuality, prepared people for sex change operations and helped with their post-op psychological rehabilitation.

Violence and social attitudes

SR: During the course of your practice have you encountered examples of extreme violence against gays?  In the light of the vicious murder of Vlad Tornovoy in Volgograd, can one now say that this has become the norm?

VS: A philosopher, I forget which, once said that everything is relative. Has the situation deteriorated? In relation to what? When? Why?  In the Soviet Union gays were put in prison.

SR: And now they’re murdered.

VS: That happened in Soviet times too and then, moreover, the infringement of homosexuals’ human rights was enshrined in the Criminal Code. I think it was Stalin who said ‘Find me the man and I’ll find you the charge against him’.  Apparently it was Stalin who put Article 121 (on homosexuality) back in the Criminal Code. They say he did so at the request of Maxim Gorky after someone had tried to seduce his son, though that might be a myth – who knows? Lenin repealed the original Tsarist law, Stalin brought it back and then Yeltsin removed it once and for all.

SR: Could we perhaps see a kind of continuity with the Soviet Union in contemporary society’s attitudes to homosexuality? Newspapers were initially extremely unwilling to write about the murder of Vlad Tornovoy in Volgograd, but when they were criticised for this, one of them printed an editorial explaining that there isn’t much interest in this kind of topic because there’s nothing particularly special about it. Half the country has been in prison, as it were, so everyone is governed by the prison code. 

VS: The Leningrad siege robbed me of my childhood, both physically and psychologically, so I was pretty hopeless at school. But I remember well, how we were taught that everything bad was down to the Tsar. The fact that there were rich and poor, honest and dishonest – this was all a hangover from Tsarist times, and I grew up believing it. And until 1953 I was also convinced that Comrade Stalin was thinking of me as he smoked his pipe by the window on the poster that hung in every school. What kind of mentality was that?

‘It was Stalin who put Article 121 (on homosexuality) back in the Criminal Code. They say he did so at the request of Maxim Gorky after someone had tried to seduce his son, though that might be a myth – who knows?’

Then when I was 14 I met my friend Seryozha Mechik, who later became famous as the writer Sergei Dovlatov, and he told me this joke: Two men meet up after a long gap, and one asks the other where he’s been. ‘I’ve been in prison for 10 years.’ ‘What for?’ ‘For nothing’. ‘You’re lying – for nothing you get 25 years.’

I didn’t understand the joke, and Seryozha said I was an idiot. Yes, people spent 25 years in the Gulag for nothing, and it made everyone, young and old, terrified. It also made us even more slave-like: ‘Better not think; better not speak’. But I do remember the rumours around at the time that Kozin, the singer, had been imprisoned for being a homosexual, and there was the infamous Leningrad Affair, including even artists from the Mariinsky, Alexandrinsky, Pushkin and other theatres.


Psychologist Vladimir Shakhidzhanian: 'the fact that homophobia has become routine is almost as terrible as the homophobia itself'

SR: Current anti-gay propaganda is often presented as protection of our children.  What do you think about that?

VS: There has always been, and there always will be, homosexuality, but it’s very important to understand that it’s not the same as paedophilia. Any exploitation of children is always wrong.  I advocate sex education in schools and think that homosexuality should be talked about from as early as year 4 [ages 9-10], as well as being discussed in a calm, intelligent way at home, warning of possible approaches by men.  But some predators have a taste for 12-year old girls as well and this could well ruin a child’s life.

SR: Do doctors often try to cure homosexuality?

VS: Of course, though requests for a ‘cure’ are often not simple or straightforward. A young man might come to a doctor and say, for instance, that he is slightly attracted and aroused by women, but a male friend had come to see him the evening before, they had got very drunk and something had happened.  This can knock a person for six if it’s the first time he has had sex. He might feel that what has happened is terrible and homosexuals should be cast out of society, or, on the contrary, it might have been so wonderful that there seems no point in him trying to be any other way. In this case he has to be helped to sort himself out and to start thinking reflexively, rather than trying to ‘cure’ him.

It has been established that approximately 17% of women and 30% of men under 40 have had experience of relations with members of the same sex. The reasons are varied: adjoining beds in a hospital ward, too much to drink at a birthday party, watching porn in a closed circle of friends. But only 8-9% of exclusively gay people have tried heterosexual relations.


SR: Is the gay issue more controversial now than it was in the 90s?

VS: The ‘wild 90s’ were definitely easier and simpler in this respect, but only by comparison with the 60s, 70s and 80s, not with today. In Soviet times there was nothing ever written about homosexuality. Then the USSR collapsed and newspapers or magazines sometimes published articles about the problems of same sex relationships, and then of course there were the small ads where you could look for potential partners. In the last 20 years, about 10 specialised magazines have appeared: Theme, One Tenth, Queer [Rn Kvir]…but unfortunately they’ve all died for lack of cash – no one wants to be seen sponsoring a gay mag. The last to go was the print edition of Queer. Classified ads for homosexual partners are also a thing of the past and there’s no longer any need to go to the public baths or hang around in toilets to pick someone up. You can find anything you want in the internet, on sites like gay.ru or lovegay.ru, to name but two.

'In the 90s the first gay club in Moscow opened, and several papers wrote about that. In the last 20 years, about 10 specialised magazines have appeared…but unfortunately they’ve all died for lack of cash – no one wants to be seen sponsoring a gay mag.'

But if you think that gays had an easier life in the 90s, then you don’t know your history very well. In Moscow there was a homophobic death every week (as there still is, by the way). There was an Orthodox priest, Abbot Lazar (‘Solnyshko’) who  was killed in 1990, for example. He met two young men in Moscow’s Sretenka street and invited them home with him, where they subjected him to a ferocious attack and killed him. What is behind such murders? Are people on the lookout for homosexuals or is it just that they invite people back who can make money by killing them?  Usually everything goes according to plan, but it can suddenly all go wrong

On our site 'Solotyping' [http://solotyping.com ] we carried out a survey of attitudes to gays. 72% of our respondents were cool about them, 6.9% were aggressively anti, and 13% considered that they should just be ignored. I can assure you that the figures would have been considerably worse 10 years ago, even on our site: everyone would have been voting for them to be castrated and/or killed.

So the situation is improving and there’s more respect for the individual.

Current problems

SR: What are the main problems facing homosexuals in Russia?

VS: Lack of understanding on the part of their parents – that’s the chief problem. Another terrible one is being refused a job because you’re gay, or living in a state of constant stress, afraid equally of being outed and of coming out.

People mainly come to see me for help with coming to terms with their sexuality: how to sort out your relationship with your family, who don’t understand how you are different. The saddest are the suicides, people who take their own lives because they feel rejected by society.  The most successful cases I see are people who accept themselves for what they are, are unafraid of exposure and making good progress at work, and generally living happy lives.

'On our site we did a survey of attitudes to gays. 72% of respondents were cool about them, 6.9% were aggressively anti, and 13% thought they should just be ignored. The figures would have been considerably worse 10 years ago, even on our site: everyone would have been voting for them to be castrated and/or killed.'

I’ve spent more than 20 years studying this area and can tell you there has been some progress: people living in the big cities are increasingly accepting of homosexuality, although I know people who are openly gay can’t get a job in a school or in higher education and don’t always get jobs in medical practices. And they are still ostracized during their military service and, of course, humiliated (sodomised and otherwise abused) in prisons.

There are gays in every walk of life: in education, art, the army, the civil service - but as a rule they conceal their sexuality, afraid of the bosses finding out and making life complicated.

Russians are brought up to believe that a man should be attracted to a woman, should become a father and live in a ‘normal’ family, as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. If you are ‘different’, you’ll be found out by the homophobes and have your face smashed in. Neighbours will start whispering behind your back, you’ll be ostracised by your colleagues at work and the management will want to get rid of you.

Pansy, faggot, queer, homo…in a word, animal. You can be beaten up and left for dead by people calling you these names. 

These were the words that were chanted while a well-known theatre director was beaten up, a young engineer from a town on the Volga was murdered and, finally, during the brutal murder of the 23-year old man in Volgograd. It’s ubiquitous, no one is surprised – they’re even used to it and there’s nothing particularly interesting about such events. The fact that homophobia has become routine is almost as terrible as the homophobia itself.

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