Queer as Folklore

Since the passage of the law on “gay propaganda,” physical and verbal attacks on LGBT people in Russia have become all too common.  This book, like virtually everything else I write, is about media, culture, and discourse, not about “real life,” but I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the numerous incidents of gaybashing in Russia’s major cities, often recorded on video by the perpetrators themselves.    

In December of 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report entitled “License to Harm,” which can be downloaded from their website. While precise statistics are difficult to come by, Human Rights Watch found a clear and growing pattern of abuse:

LGBT people in Russia face stigma, harassment, and violence in their everyday lives, and most people who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that this intensified in 2013. In some cases they were attacked by anti-LGBT vigilante groups that sprang up in late 2012 across Russia. These groups consist of a network of radical nationalist men who lure gay men and teenage children on the pretext of a fake date, hold them against their will, and humiliate and expose them by videotaping the encounter. Such encounters have often involved perpetrators pouring urine over their victims and in some cases forcing them to drink it. Assailants often hit and kicked the victims; in some cases they hit their victims with dildos or forced them to hold and pose with dildos; stripped them naked; painted and drew slurs on them; and/or sprayed them with construction foam in the genital area. Hundreds of such videos have been posted online.

I cannot speak with any authority about the lived experience of queer people in Russia today, nor do I have the training or interest in gathering empirical data through fieldwork.  What I can speak to is the shrill, anti-gay hysteria that has found a welcome home in the mainstream Russian media (not to mention the Internet).  I do not use the word “hysteria” lightly; given the media and government’s construction of a lavender menace to all that true Russians hold dear (this despite the general population’s complete lack of awareness of interacting with actual LGBT people during their daily lives), I can only conclude that the homophobia that clearly existed before 2013 has been turned into an ideological weapon.  

Vampire Gays of Sodom

Current anti-gay rhetoric in Russia has a strong and disturbing basis in notions of social hygiene:  more than just inveterate corruptors of Russia’s youth, LGBT people are framed as an alien, virulent infection menacing the immune system of Russia’s body politic.  Consider some of the most notorious statements made in the wake of the gay propaganda law.

In August of 2013, Dmitry Kiselyov, host of one of the country’s most popular news programs, declared

“I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough. They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”

His remarks were applauded by the studio audience.  Four months later, Putin appointed him as head of the new state news agency, Russia Today. [1]

In December of that same year, Ivan Okhlobystin, star of the popular Scrubs rip-off Interns, went even further: “I’d put them all alive in the oven… it’s a living danger to my children.” Just a few weeks later, Okhlobystin posted an open letter to Vladimir Putin on Vkontakte urging the president to restore the old Soviet law stipulating prison time for homosexual activity.

Kiselyov later defended his remarks as being consistent with “internationally recognized practice” (referring to bans on blood and organ donation by gay men in the US and Europe).   Even if we set aside for the moment the dubiousness of such practices in the West, they are framed specifically in terms of combatting the spread of one particular illness: HIV/AIDS.   Certainly, AIDS is behind both men’s remarks, but what is noteworthy is that the illness need no longer be name checked.  Rather, gay men are the source of infection by their very nature. 

Kiselyov’s remarks implicitly make gay men the modern equivalent of vampires, recommending that their bodies be disposed in the traditional manner for fighting the undead.[2] Okhlobystin turns gay men into Jews under the Nazis, fodder for industrialized destruction in crematoria. Both metaphors are revealing, in that each of them is rooted in the logic of social hygiene.  Vampires are parasites as folk devils, while the Jews were explicitly labeled vermin by the Third Reich.  

Two men do not make a statistic (at best, they make a domestic partnership, which in this case would be slash fiction I would happily pay for).  Nor were their remarks exempt from condemnation by some in the Russian media.  They represent something other than a verifiable trend.  As so often happens on Russian television in the past few years, Kiselyov’s and Okhlobystin’s words show shifts in the boundaries not of the thinkable, but of the sayable. 

Such statements do not become the norm, but they do show what is permissible and make otherwise extreme statements that stop short of crematoria and vampire disposal more ordinary.  The domestication of extremism is a slow and complicated process.  In this case, we see it happening over gay men’s dead bodies. 

Next: The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name to Anyone Under 18


[1] Not to be confused with the foreign-language television network RT, which used to be called “Russia Today.” 

[2] Laurie Essig notes this similarity in her essay "'Bury Their Hearts': Some Thoughts on the Specter of Homosexuality Haunting Russia" (QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1.3 (Fall 2014): 39-58.  It is also available in Russian in А.А. Кондаков (редактор/составилтель). "На перепутье: методология, теория и практика ЛГБТ и квир-исследований.  Спб: Центры независимых социальных исследований.  2014. 3-24.