The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name to Anyone Under 18

Everyone has a theory of gender and sexuality, but if you’re lucky enough to be in the majority, you might mistake your theory for “nature.”

In his 1996 travel memoir/lay-anthropological report Cracks in the Iron Closet, journalist David Tuller’s 13th chapter “Theories, Theories, Theories” provides an amusing overview of the multifarious hypotheses about the origin of sexual orientation, as well as a case study of the Russian habit of theorizing. Twenty years later, the debate on sexual orientation in Russian public culture is virtually closed:  yes, we were born this way, but this way is straight (and narrow).   

Even though the overwhelming scientific consensus is that people are not “turned” gay via seduction, propaganda, or Joan Crawford retrospectives, the “traditional values” crowed has followed in the footsteps of their American brethren in totally rejecting the data.[1] Instead, they have latched on to the occasional study, usually by right-wingers, that reinforces the idea of LGBT abnormality and danger.  As Lena Klimova notes in Deti-404, Mark Regnerus’ 2012 sociological study claiming that children raised by LGBT parents are at a greater risk of abuse and suicide attempts was widely trumpeted in Russia, despite its debunking by the scholarly community.[2] 

Recall how tenuous was the connection between the violent homophobic remarks by Dmitry Kiselyov and  Ivan Okhlobystin and any actual question of AIDS: as I concluded in the previous post, it is not AIDS, but gay men themselves that are both the vector of infection and the pathogen transmitted.  This homosexual threat is often cast as demographic problem, but this it really the weakest of rhetorical gestures.  If the LGBT presence in Russia is really so small (and so recent), how can it be responsible for depopulation?  The primary engine of ant-gay panic is quite different.

If gay men have long been cast as an AIDS “risk group,” who is at risk when gay men themselves are the pathogen? The answer is quite simple: children.  Little work is required to make that connection in the popular mindset, since gay men and lesbians in Russia have long been assumed to “recruit” young people.  Even the most common anti-gay slur (“педераст”) confuses the issue:  this term is frequently and incorrect given a literal gloss in English as “pederast,” though it is best translated as “f*ggot.”  More to the point, it etymologically reinforces a common conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia (a conflation facilitated by appeals to the traditions of ancient Greece).   

What is new, then, is not the association between male homosexuals and pedophiles, but the post-2012 construction of the endangered child.   The innocent child is always a figure that demands protection and in whose name a great many otherwise questionable policies can be justified.  Russia is hardly alone in using the rhetoric of child protection as a fig leaf for encroaching on individual liberties; what is noteworthy is how recent this tactic is in the Russian Federation, as well as how widespread it has become.  In the past few years, the Russian legislature has passed a string of laws whose ostensible purpose is to protect children, but whose effects appear to critics to be much less, well, innocent:  bans on violence in cartoons,  bans on a whole range of subject matter on television before 10:00, restrictions on Internet content (the final frontier of free speech), and, of course, the “Dima Yakovlev” law outlawing the adoption of Russian children by Americans.  [3]

The deployment of children in all these debates might be sincere on the part of many of these policies supporters, but, when  all of these restive measures are examined side by side, it starts to look rather cynical.   Taken as a whole, this is an extremely clever reappropriation of the liberal/sentimental tropes that have long served to critique Russian government policy.  At the same time that the state trumpets the sanctity of the traditional family, it is more than happy to assume a protective parental role in the service of a broader agenda of social restriction. 

In the case of the gay propaganda law, we are not merely talking about shielding children from pedophiles: after all, who could be against that? [4] To put it bluntly, the law’s purpose is not to prevent child rape.  It’s to prevent child homosexualization.  Gay seduction, it turns out, uses two vectors of transmission:  adult men preying on children (which was already illegal) and adults simply talking about gay life when children are present.  

In part, this is a return to the Soviet ethos of sexual discourse:  sex should not be a subject for discussion. This idea is not mere prudery; when considered in the context of the other restrictive laws that use children as an excuse, the overall goal appears to be the restriction of discourse, period.   The first 10 years of the Putin/Medvedev era were governed by a tacit compact:  if you stay out of the state’s way, the state will, for the most part, allow you to talk about whatever you want and consume whatever media you want. As long as the commanding heights of discourse (television) were in state control, everything else was just empty chatter. This is clearly no longer the case.

But even if we look at the gay propaganda law in isolation, its basic premise suggests and intriguing, presumably unintended, theory of sexuality. Despite the professed belief in the “natural” and the “traditional,” the gay propaganda law betrays a fundamental uncertainly about heterosexuality itself. It is as though homosexuality were somehow naturally more attractive and more fun that anything the straight life could offer.  If we let people talk about homosexuality, everyone’s going to want to do it.  

In the final analysis, the law is offensive to straight people: heterosexual sex is the performance of one’s duty to God and country, while homosexual sex is just nonstop fun.  When did heterosexuality become such a drag? 

Next: Chasing Rainbows


 1) For more on the ties between American and Russian anti-gay movements, see Hannah Levintova, “How US Evangelics Helped Create Russia’s Anti-Gay Movement.” Mother Jones February 21, 2014.

2) See

3) Originally, this list included "smoking bans in public places and cartoons."  I've moved it to a footnote because, while this does count as a restriction, it seems to be purely a matter of public health.  Thanks to Cassio de Oliviera for pointing out the flaw in the earlier version of this post.  

4) Actually, if you watch Igor Prokopenko’s non-stop wing nut conspiracy mongering on RenTV’s Voennaia taina, you will learn that Europe is obsessed with protecting the rights of pedophiles. But that is a matter for a later post.