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On the eve of the Olympics: being gay in Russia

On the eve of the Olympics: being gay in Russia

Jeff Sharlet investigates life in Russia and the persecution of anyone the state believes support people of any orientation other than heterosexual. GQ carries the story, “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” Some excerpts:

The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay “propaganda,” but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what “propaganda” was. The new law explicitly forbids any suggestion that queer love is equal to that of heterosexuals, but what constitutes such a suggestion? One man was charged for holding up a sign that said being gay is ok. Pride parades are out of the question, a pink triangle enough to get you arrested, if not beaten. A couple holding hands could be accused of propaganda if they do so where a minor might see them; the law, as framed, is all about protecting the children. Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and the author of the bill, says that it’s too late to save adult “homosexualists,” as they’re called, but Russia still has a chance to raise a pure generation.

Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don’t advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of “family values” churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight “globalization”—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror.

Explaining her view of Russia’s rising homophobia, she dictates to Zhenya: “Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it’s not kosher. We—” she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya—”are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don’t look different, but we are.”

Will the Olympics help expose Russia? Should there be a boycott? Can there be change?


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Kurt Wiesner

The author, Jeff Sharlet, is the Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth and was interviewed by Dartmouth Now:

“Dartmouth Now talked recently with Sharlet about what he saw in Russia.

DNow: Did anything feel familiar to what you reported from Uganda?

Sharlet: The Russian government’s application of homophobia is very different than Uganda’s. Although it’s less extreme, it’s in many ways more perverse. Many Ugandan officials want to literally exterminate homosexuality; the Russian policy is that of a very deep and dark closet. There’s violence, but the law is actually about banning love. It says that “gay propaganda” includes any suggestion that a queer relationship is equal to a heterosexual one. And the people who feel its impact the most are queer parents. “A year ago, two years ago,” the director of a network for LGBTQ families told me, “the most popular question was how to come out to the children. Now, one of the most popular questions is how to teach a child to hide.”

Compare that with the openness of the haters: They posed for pictures for me holding up iPad images of their “greatest hits,” pictures of beatings they’d delivered. They had no fear of a police response.”

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