In July, British and American media reported on a viral video in which two male Moscow-based celebrities, known for their social pranks, walked the streets of Russia’s capital attempting to pass as a fey gay couple. This took place shortly after the US Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.
The pranksters walked the streets of Moscow, while holding hands and dressed in ripped skinny jeans and hipster beanies. The intent of the prank was to compare the state of gay rights in Russia to the United States. Mainstream western media did not elaborate on the fact that the two pranksters were straight and they portrayed themselves as a very docile gay couple. As the video shows, the ‘couple’ never challenge the verbal insults or shoves from passers-by, no one comes to their aid, they are never defended, nor do they defend themselves.
Instead, the pranksters send a plain and dispiriting message: gay people in Russia are lonely couples with no community who do not challenge homophobia.
Shortly after the Moscow video was released, a similar experiment was repeated in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. This time, an actual gay couple, Zoryan Kis and Tymur Levchuk, went for an hour-long stroll around town. Their clothes were plainer than those worn by the Moscow pranksters, but they chose to be more provocative.
As the video shows, one of the men, holding a bouquet of white chrysanthemums, sits on his partner’s lap in a public space in central Kyiv. Immediately, the couple is surrounded by a dozen far-right men and attacked with pepper-spray, but the team accompanying the couple promptly stop the volley of punches and kicks.
Still from the video of Zoryan Kis and Timur Levchuk being attacked. Via YouTube.
Zoryan, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International Ukraine, concluded that this version of the ‘gay social experiment’ was not as homophobic as the one in Russia. Save the pepper-spray attack, Kyiv residents expressed no animosity toward the couple. However, the experiment’s focus, again, was on a lone gay couple, isolated within the confines of a big city.
A distorted lens
In August, a third iteration of the ‘gay social experiment’ appeared online—this time in my hometown of Vilnius, Lithuania. With it, my uneasiness about these re-enactments of queer lives in eastern Europe intensified.
The reason was simple. Though I know a little bit about current and historical sexual dissidence in Russia and Ukraine, I possess substantial knowledge about the scope of LGBTQ experiences in Lithuania. The Vilnius video, initiated by a local journalist, watered these experiences down.
What I watched was a lazy lunch break stroll of two lean, casually dressed millennials surreptitiously holding hands. There is sunshine, a jazzy soundtrack in the background and shy smiles on the couple’s faces as they walk.
People look at them and smile, but there is no expression of animosity. We do not hear this couple speak and don't see where they live or what they do. Like in Moscow and Kyiv, this couple are on their own.
We don't hear this couple speak and don't see where they live or what they do.
This bland video in which nothing happens obscures a number of aspects central to queer existence in this country—such as the real fear of violence that comes with appearing in public with your partner if you don’t ‘pass’ as straight or the importance of finding a queer community.
The video does not explain that the men are not a couple, nor that their conservative dress was an arrangement made prior to filming, with the purpose of making them seem inconspicuous.
Western spectators do not learn that one of the actors, Artūras Rudomanskis, is a well-known human rights activist, politician, and an openly gay man whose media presence may have impacted low-key reactions to the hand-holding experiment. The video also does not reveal that, as a security precaution, the journalists agreed the stroll would happen only on streets with security cameras.
It comes as no surprise that the Vilnius’ ‘gay social experiment’ with no evidence of visible hostility, unlike its counterparts in Moscow and Kyiv, did not catch the attention of international news sites. LGBTQ issues in Lithuania or other smaller countries tend to attract western journalists only when Pride events include aggression or in cases of public homophobia. Often news from these countries reaches western audiences only because gay rights activists or human rights organisations direct media attention to them.
Without a doubt, homophobic attitudes in the former Soviet union need to be addressed. The Moscow and Kyiv videos show us how dangerous everyday life can be for LGBTQs and the story behind the Vilnius video implies this. It is equally important to acknowledge that, in the west, we rarely leave our comfort zones to grasp what drives queers in other cultures. Western perceptions of LGBTQ life 'abroad' often positions gay people as individuals and victims. These videos, while certainly helpful in attracting attention, are also detrimental.
Western activists, community leaders, educators, and human rights advocates can learn a lot from paying attention to how queer communities survive and nourish their desires elsewhere.
A subtler picture
One such illuminating example is Kreivės, a Vilnius-based festival which is now in its second year. The festival (the name is best translated as ‘geometrical curves’) is held at Skalvija, the last remaining non-commercial cinema house in Vilnius, which, for a week in August, becomes a haven for local queer youth.
Accounts of events like this Vilnius-based festival provide a much-needed alternative to the worn-out narratives of gay invisibility and homophobia that dominate media reports about queer lives outside the western world.
Augustas Čičelis putting up posters promoting Vilnius LGBT* festival Kreivės. (c) Kreivės.
For ten days in August, Kreivės builds a precious space, and one that is changing the terms of LGBTQ activism in this small Baltic country.
Instead of educating society about homosexuality or advocating for gay visibility, the event focuses on community building and nourishment. With a thoughtful programme of international films, a Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective, talks, music, and small-scale exhibitions, Kreivės has a lot to offer to local queers and their allies abroad.
Projects like this one are the real social experiments we in the west should be learning about.
Kreivės started in 2013 as a low profile series of LGBTQ film screenings. Under the dedicated supervision of Augustas Čičelis, a Vilnius local in his 30s, the festival has evolved from its grass-roots beginnings as a cultural experiment into a much-needed queer space.
For the first screenings, Augustas sourced films through local embassies and cultural bastions like the Goethe-Institut.
All films were obtained free of charge, entrance to the festival was free. Augustas’ vision of an artsy LGBTQ festival began with no substantial support from any Lithuanian gay or lesbian organizations, which focus on advocacy and policy research rather than art-driven activities.
By emphasizing artistic expression, Kreivės opens up new ground in queer activism and reminds us of the early 1990s in Lithuania, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this Baltic country, the 1990s was an era with a vibrant gay and lesbian cultural scene, which boasted intriguing gay press and lesbian-owned bars.
Today, this festival brings this important history back to life. Organisers say they want to grow this event as a temporary site where queer youth can get to know each other and share their culture without the pressure to immediately enter the activist scene. In a city with no LGBTQ centres and with little attention among existing gay and lesbian organizations to youth, this vision may even save lives by creating a space for queer existence in a place where it can seem invisible.
For LGBTQ allies outside of Lithuania, Kreivės may appear similar to the many art festivals on sexuality that have sprouted up all over the globe. It is in the context of its grass-roots origins that the festival’s importance as a queer space can be understood.
Projects like Kreivės are the real social experiments we in the west should be learning about. They expand the dimensions of our queer worlds and remind us of the ways queer culture can evolve.