Chasing Rainbows

A funny thing happened to homophobia on its way to being enshrined in Russian law: it stopped being about sex and started being about identity.  

This is a familiar pattern in the history of homophobia; it’s just that in the recent Russian case, the timeline has been so drastically accelerated.  It has become something of a truism in sexuality studies that, before the end of the nineteenth century, the homosexual did not exist.  Homosexual activity certainly did, but it took the combined efforts of the medical and legal systems (most notably in the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency") to generate the idea of the homosexual as a particular type, a person defined either in terms of medical dysfunction, legal violation, or both.[1]       

Persecution of male homosexuals could thereby be justified either in terms of the “disgusting” activities in which they engage or the everyday violations of gender propriety they commit simply by being themselves (or, if you prefer, performing their identity).  In mainstream America, the growing acceptance of LGBT people was often facilitated by the creation of popular LGBT characters who led all but sexless lives (the “Will and Grace” syndrome).   This is obviously problematic, but it did make it possible to talk about (and think about) gay people without immediately picturing them naked and copulating (not that there’s anything wrong with that).   

The “gaydar” I mentioned a few posts ago doesn’t mean the ability to somehow catch two men having sex, but rather the capacity to read behavioral codes.   The gay propaganda law does something magical to homosexuality: it frames gay sex as a threat to be avoided, but, as its defenders repeatedly remind us, it does not criminalize homosexual activity.  It purports to protect children, but it does not outlaw the adult rape of children (since that’s already taken care of).  Instead, Mizulina, Milonov, and their ilk have created the perfect Foulcaudian legislation: it shifts the focus from homosexual activity to homosexual discourse.    

The current anti-gay hysteria has drifted far from considerations of what actual LGBT community members are doing with their members. There’s a certain logic here: man-on-man sex must be so vile as to be unthinkable (straight porn suggests that lesbian sex is more than thinkable, as long as it doesn’t involve actual lesbians who know what they’re doing). Instead, let’s concentrate on everything else that may have to do with homosexuals. 

Contemporary Russian homophobia is already couched in paranoid terms, since pro-LGBT activity is habitually “blamed” on the West.  But in a country long familiar with the benefits of aesopian language, the crusade to protect minors from homosexual discourse demands paranoid interpretive strategies.


Rainbow Connections 

Consider the anti-gay manifestations that properly belong to the “news of the weird” category:  In late 2014, a St. Petersburg monument to Apple founder Steve Jobs was removed after CEO Tim Cook came out to the public.  A spokesperson for the consortium of companies responsible for the monument explained

After Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly called for sodomy, the monument was taken down to abide to [sic[ the Russian federal law protecting children from information promoting denial of traditional family values

Steve Jobs’ offense, then,  is not that he had sex with men (if he did, he never mentioned it to Walter Isaacson), but that he hired as his future replacement a man who does. The statue doesn’t actually violate any statute, but its removal shows one of the law’s worst consequences: it is an incitement to take every opportunity to affirm that LGBT people are anathema. The Jobs statue incident removes the last defense of the bigot: apparently, it is no longer ok to say “Some of my best friends are gay. “ (OK, Jobs didn’t really have friends, but the point is still the same.)

On its own, this case doesn’t mean all that much;  after all, Steve Jobs is 1) dead, 2) straight, and 3) not Russian. But it is consistent with the media campaign against anything even vaguely associated with LGBT people.  And the biggest (symbolic) victim is the rainbow.

Because the rainbow is an internationally-recognized symbol of LGBT pride, it has become an object of suspicion in the eyes of Russia’s homophobes.  Even some supporters of the gay propaganda law recognize that this has gone too far. Dmitri Belyayev, a proponent of the St. Petersburg law that served as a rough draft for the subsequent national legislation, admits that deputies who want to ban the use of the rainbow symbol are “deranged” (“не обошлось без маразма”):   “The rainbow itself…has nothing to do with pedersasty” (“педерастия”) .  This is a defense to warm gay hearts, assuming that they haven’t already been removed and burned, according to Dmitry Kiselyov’s wishes. 

The reliably unhinged Arkady Mamontov, star of the “Special Correspondent” talk show on Channel 1, showed a predictably homophobic documentary in November of 2013 in the wake of the gay propaganda law. As journalists Michael Bohm, Mamontov’s regular American talk-show punching bag, describes it: 

The show started with a 30-minute documentary-style film that claimed an aggressive, well-financed and organized Western homosexual lobby was forcing its values on Russia. If the country failed to defeat the threat, we were told, the number of homosexuals would increase. The film ended with a collage of scenes depicting rainbows in Russia on a pharmacy, a supermarket, the covers of notebooks and on a sign in front of a business center. All of these rainbow symbols, it was explained, were part of an insidious Western conspiracy to propagandize homosexuality and corrupt Russia’s fundamental moral and spiritual values.

After the film, Mamontov asked me, the only foreign guest on the show, the first question: “Why do you stick your nose in our business?” he said. “Why do you try to impose your alien values on us?”

So now rainbows are part of an evil American plot.  When Kermit the Frog sang, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows,” who knew that he was really launching an investigation into the secret gay cabal that wants to control the world? 

There is no need to explain patiently that rainbows can mean many different things.  Instead, I like to recall that, in Soviet times, when the USSR put an emphasis on publishing Russian classic works in translation to be read around the world, the name of that particular publishing house was “Raduga,” or rainbow.  Coincidence? Or were Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Sholokhov all part of the gay agenda? 

Perhaps we should go further back.  When Noah and company sailed for forty days and forty nights, God sent a rainbow as a sign of his new covenant.  I was taught that this meant God would no longer destroy the world when he was in a bad mood.  Apparently, he was just advertising the world’s first gay bar.

Next: Gayropa, Gayropa


[1] And yes, I’m talking primarily about gay men and relegating lesbians to an afterthought.  In my justification, I’m simply following my sources:  though lesbians are certainly being persecuted, the public outrage centers largely on men.