On 19th September, at the annual meeting of the Valdai Club, which brings together Russia specialists from all over the world who support the Putin regime, the Russian president made an unexpected joke. Noting that former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi was on trial for living with women, he continued: ‘if he was gay and living with men, no one would have lifted a finger against him.’ It wasn’t a particularly good joke, but the point was that it was made by an ex KGB officer – real macho men don’t talk about such things. Putin has of course touched on LGBT rights before, although only when pushed by journalists, but here too his position seems to be changing. If in 2007 he stated that he had nothing against gays, but as president he had to think about Russia’s demographic problem, in 2013 his response was rather more nuanced. In an interview with Associated Press and Channel 1 TV on 3rd September, he said, ‘I can assure you that I work with these people; I sometimes give them awards and honours for their achievements. Our relations are absolutely normal and I don’t see anything odd in that. They say that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, although that’s not what we love him for, but he was a great composer and we all love his music.’
An official retreat …
And Putin is not the only public figure making conciliatory remarks: two weeks later MP Yelena Mizulina, the main supporter of the law banning ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual relationships’ among children and young people, described as ‘silly’ a proposal by fellow MP Aleksei Zhuravlyov to deny people in same sex relationships custody of their own children. But it would be wrong to think that Mizulina weighed up the pros and cons and came to the conclusion that this measure reeks of fascism: in Russia you can get any legislation passed, and only a couple of months ago she herself was arguing for the same thing. No: the fact that our chief homophobe has changed her mind can mean only one thing – orders from the top to give it a break.
This order is no coincidence. On the one hand, the Kremlin obviously didn’t expect the international outcry against its anti-gay legislation which is threatening the project closest to Moscow’s heart – the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. On the other, in Russia these days you have to be pretty lazy not to have an opinion on LGBT issues; in intellectual (and other) circles, it is your attitude to gays that defines you. It used to be anti-Semitism that was the dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’; now it’s homophobia.
I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that has made the difference: it has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives. If it hadn’t been for the new anti-gay law, the battle for LGBT rights would have dragged on for years: instead, the attack on their rights has been a catalyst for their assertion.
…and public acceptance
While the LGBT community was getting its act together, other people also began thinking and talking about the issues. Elderly woman in doorways; children at school; university professors – all of them had to decide what side of the line they stood on: acceptance of homosexuality or not. And having to take a decision about where you stand often leads to the realisation that acceptance alone may not be enough – you have to be prepared to stand up for people who are facing discrimination.
A couple of other young lads started defending us: ‘What were they doing to you, for you to pester them like that’, asked a kid wearing a bee costume. ’I don’t give a fuck who someone sleeps with, as long as they’re a good person’.
A month ago I was one of a dozen or so LGBT activists taking part in a demonstration on Moscow’s Arbat, a pedestrianised street that is always packed with tourists and young people. Our youngest activist was just 16, and this was his coming out: he showed his classmates video footage of the demo. We were simply walking along the street with gay banners, handing out leaflets to passers-by, when we were suddenly surrounded by a crowd of aggressive youths, who started chanting ‘Buggers fuck off!’ Some of them threatened to throw us into the Turandot fountain beside the Vakhtangov Theatre, others changed the chant to ‘Buggers are a disgrace to Russia!’. It was really scary. There were twice as many of them; we didn’t want to get into a fight but we didn’t want to end up in the fountain either. But then, totally out of the blue for both us and the homophobes, a couple of other young lads started defending us: ‘What were they doing to you, for you to pester them like that’, asked a kid who for some reason was wearing a bee costume. ’I don’t give a fuck who someone sleeps with, as long as they’re a good person’. We had just two defenders, and there were about 20 of the others, but they retreated without another word, completely taken aback by somebody taking our side. And we were so impressed that these two, obviously straight, kids had realised that they wanted to live in a society without homophobia.
People who have never thought about it before are now making a choice: they don’t want to live in Ivan the Terrible’s ‘first-throned city’, but in a modern capital, and one whose modernity isn’t about its trendy cafes or bike lanes, but values.
And it is not just young people, who are traditionally more liberal, who are coming to the same conclusion. In the run-up to the Moscow mayoral election Enteo, a prominent figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, followed opposition candidate Aleksei Navalny around as he spoke to voters. Navalny himself is fairly conservative and not particularly forthcoming on LGBT issues, but when Enteo asked him what he thought of gay parades he replied that Russia’s constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. Enteo attended just about every meeting held by Navalny, asking the same question and trying to explain to the voters that the candidate was in favour of perverts marching through the streets of their ‘holy city’. But the interesting thing was that no one supported him. On the video he posted on his VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook equivalent), an elderly man suddenly starts arguing with him about gays. ‘I don’t mind them at all. And this is my wife – neither of us have anything against them.’ And again, the important thing wasn’t Enteo’s attitude or the weakness shown by Navalny, who was obviously too afraid of losing votes to come out openly in support of LGBT rights, but the fact that people who have never thought about it before are now making a choice: they don’t want to live in Ivan the Terrible’s ‘first-throned city’, but in a modern capital whose modernity isn’t about its trendy cafes or bike lanes, but values.
The ostensible reason for the law was to protect children from ‘gay propaganda’. But even here it has had the reverse effect. A couple of months ago a friend of mine, a Moscow poet, was putting her son to bed and they were imagining how when he grew up he would live in a big white house with cats and a pool to swim in. ‘I’ll have a wife,’ he said, ‘and I’ll love her – it won’t matter whether she’s thin or a bit plump.’ And then he suddenly added, ‘Of course there are gays as well; that’s when a boy loves another boy. And lesbians. Granny and I saw gays in a café, and they told us about lesbians at nursery. But that’s not my thing…’ This child is six years old, but he is already on the right side of the acceptance dividing line. And that is the most important achievement of parliamentary homophobia.
Russia needs its own Stonewall: see Igor Yasin's contribution here