Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? [1]

To the outside world, the triumph of “traditional values” in Russia can be summed up in two words: gay propaganda. On June 11, 2013, after a series of similar laws were adopted by local and regional authorities, the State Duma passed a law officially entitled “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” [2]

Technically, the law is meant to “shield" minors from any content that portrays homosexuality as normal or contains “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships.”  As the law’s defenders are quick to point out, it does not re-criminalize homosexual activity or ban gay clubs, and there are plenty of countries throughout the world that are far more punitive towards their LGBT citizens.[3]  Moreover, if we look at the United States, the great strides towards LGBT acceptance and legal equality in the past decades means that anyone over 40 can easily remember a time of far less tolerance.  When Russian supporters of the law argue that it is unreasonable to expect every country to follow the United States (and Western Europe) in lockstep on the march to progress, they have a point. [4]  

No, this is not a picture of the author in his thirties.  At least, I don't think so. 

No, this is not a picture of the author in his thirties.  At least, I don't think so. 

But what is happening in Russia is not merely a question of “lagging behind” (a concept that plays all too easily into stereotypes about Russia’s relationship to the West).  Nor is it a matter of the simple continuity of longstanding traditions and attitudes.  The story is actually much more complicated. 

First of all, it is not as if any country in Europe or North America was a model of LGBT freedom until quite recently.  Is there any modern nation that can’t claim homophobia as part of its historical values? 

Second, while Soviet law stipulated prison sentences for men who engaged in same-sex activity (and involuntary commitment to mental hospitals in the case of women), most Soviet lesbians and gay men led lives of closeted invisibility that kept them relatively safe from incarceration (though quite vulnerable to blackmail and coercion).  The Soviet law against homosexuality worked like most Soviet (and post-Soviet laws):  while not universally enforced, they were always available as a weapon against anyone who became inconvenient. 

LGBT invisibility resulted in a widespread naivety about LGBT people in Russia.   Essentially, the USSR never perfected gaydar technology. That is, it was understood that homosexuals and lesbians existed, but only as such rare, abject freaks that the designation couldn’t possible apply to an actual person one  might know.  The result was a queer invisibility whose uses are certainly familiar in the West (“If only that nice Liberace could meet the right girl…”), but rapidly dying out. 

Virtually no one in Russia is in the habit of thinking of queer people as a legitimate  political constituency, which at least partially explains the surprise expressed by Russian officials when Americans and Europeans keep “harping” on gay rights. Just last week, Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s top human-rights official, dismissed questions about LGBT people and political prisoners: “Is that really the most pressing (наболевшая) topic?” 

Her question has a strong populist overtone, in that she deflects these concerns in favor of issues that trouble “average” Russian citizens.  Average citizens of the Russian Federation assume that they don’t really know any actual gay people. That is, chances are, they do know someone who is gay, but they don’t know that they know someone who is gay. To them, worrying about LGBT rights is like anxiety over the plight of leprechauns.

The current law against “gay propaganda” is a perfect fit with the casual disdain for “sexual minorities” that was prevalent in popular culture after the Soviet collapse. In the popular fiction of the 1990s, one could find frequent references to entertainers who claimed to be gay or lesbian just to “follow fashion” or “get attention” (T.A.T.U. has a lot to answer for). in other words, the media “turned” people gay. 

Even liberal writer Boris Akunin, whose novel Coronation can be read as sympathetic to homosexual men, resorts to crass caricature when setting his fiction in contemporary times: in a later novel, Nicholas Fandorin’s secretary Valya is a flamboyant bisexual male transvestite who is always playfully hitting on his boss, before eventually becoming an MTF transsexual, apparently on a whim (feeble comedy and misinformation all in one).

But playful ignorance and casual dismissal are a far cry from the 2013 law, which restricts a minority group’s right to self-expression after years of freedom of speech.   Moreover, the deployment of children as an endangered group (something I’ll be getting back to a few posts from now) is particularly insidious. All it takes to shut down a discussion of LGBT rights is the presence of a minor, or even the allegation that a minor is or could be present.  This is not merely a limitation on LGBT rights; it makes the very argument in favor of LGBT rights potentially criminal.[5]  Queer people and their supporters could now be violating the law if they argue against the law in hearing distance of someone under 18. [6] 

Whatever the intent of the law, the ban on “gay propaganda” has effectively declared an entire population within the Russian Federation to be deviant, with any positive discussion of their existence portrayed as a threat to families. 

In the new era of "traditional values," queer people are the perfect internal enemy.

Next: Queer as Folklore



[1] Title shamelessly stolen from Jeannette Winterson’s memoir.   

[2] The full Russian text of the law can be found here. It can be found in both Russian and English here.

[3] Supporters also are quick to point out the existence of anti-gay laws on the books in several American states.  Most of these laws, however, are old, and all of them, while potentially facilitating police harassment,  are now unenforceable. 

[4] To be clear: by saying “they have a point,” I do not mean that the law is in any way sensible or just.  The point is that we cannot look at the United States’ timeline on gay rights as “natural” or “standard,” with any other nation’s development as somehow deviant or defective. 

[5] In January 2014, the editor-in-chief of Molodoi dal’nevostochnik was fined 50,000 rubles for printing the words “being gay is normal” as part of a quote by a schoolteacher who had been fired for his sexual orientation. 

[6] And this is all without even addressing one of the major ill effects of the law: LGBT youth, who are a higher risk of suicide, cannot be told that there is nothing wrong with them.