We've been watching with horror the worsening situation for gays and lesbians in Russia in the wake of the law that was unanimously passed by the Duma on June 11 against the spreading of 'gay propaganda'. In its wake, there has been at least one incident in which foreign tourists were arrested, but much more worryingly, the law appears to have unleashed a new wave of extra-judiciary persecution of gays by self-deputized right-wing vigilantes who are now enabled to believe, rightly, that their violence is an enactment of the will of the state.
One aspect of the law that has not received much comment is that it is a law against propaganda, not sex acts themselves. Of course, either way the law might be expressed, what it ends up doing is persecuting people, and either way it picks out the same people. The anti-propaganda law in fact makes this persecution of people easier, since interpreted loosely enough one can be found in violation of the law simply in virtue of one's style or personal manner, without having to be found in flagrante delicto. But it is not just for ease of application that the law is expressed in this way, but also, significantly, because gayness is something, on the usual Russian understanding, that can be propagated. It is, namely, a foreign ideology.
We need to understand Russian homophobia as part of a cultural complex that extends well beyond conservative sexual morality. It emerges in a context in which absolutely everything --soda pop, cars, movies, sex practices-- is classified according to the bivalent distinction between what is importnyï and what is svoï: that is, between the imported and the local (and in a lovely instance of autology, importnyï is itself importnyï). What is difficult for westerners to understand is how something as basic to a person as sexual orientation could possibly be perceived as an import. From the conservative Russian point of view, though, the most striking thing about the word geï is its obvious status as a borrowing. Even in Western Europe, one might detect a correlation between cultures with indigenous words for 'gay' on the one hand (e.g., the German schwul), and on the other a generally smoother transition to full equality for sexual minorities. (France, like Russia, is having trouble with 'gay', and this seems at least in part to have to do with that famous French cultural exceptionalism.)
At the more technical or orthophemistic level, Slavic-based terms for 'homosexual' have been proposed (the pre-revolutionary liberal statesman V. D. Nabokov, father to the more famous V. V. Nabokov, proposed ravnopolyï more than a century ago), but none have stuck (except of course those of premodern origin and biblical resonance, such as the amusing muzhelozhstvo, literally 'man-laying'). One suspects something very significant going on at the linguistic level: Russia wants to be in control of its sexuality, and there is no surer way of staying in control than by keeping the terms for certain expressions of sexuality foreign as if by definition.
Indeed the same control seems to be at work in the much-ridiculed comment from Lyudmila Ivanova, then chairperson of the Committee of Soviet Women, when she appeared on the Phil Donahue show in 1986 and announced, "There is no sex in the USSR." What she meant is that there is no seks in the USSR, that seks is an importnyï word associated with the way people 'have sex' in commercials and Hollywood movies, and that doesn't adequately capture whatever it is that Soviet people are doing when they express their own sexuality.
That expression never involved homosexuality as a fundamental orientation of persons; it did involve 'pederasty', conceptualized as an individual act and, however common, as a transgression. It was briefly legal, or at least not-illegal, following the Bolshevik revolution and the abolition of the Tsarist criminal code. Stalin introduced an anti-pederasty law in 1933, which made it punishable by up to five years' imprisonment, or more if force was involved. Sniffing out such acts was a useful way of getting rid of certain varieties of interesting people --bohemians, individualists, cosmopolitans--, and thus in its actual application there seems often to have been a good admixture of xenophobia within the homophobia. In the case of the great Armenian director Sergei Parajanov, for example, who was imprisoned from 1973 to 1977 under Stalin's old article 121, it seems that international support for his release --from Fellini, Aragon, Visconti, etc.-- only served for many Soviets to increase the suspicion that he was in fact guilty. What other kind of person but a pedik could possibly have charmed so many bohemian foreigners?
By comparing Russia's recent indigestion of geï with late-Soviet resistance to seks, I do not at all wish to legitimate the persecution. But I do believe it is very important to understand the local particularities of the global struggle for LGBT equality, and it is clear that more or less every society that positions itself in some way against Western hegemony faces an extra layer of complexity in coming to terms with the political demands of sexual minorities. This was certainly the case in Ahmadinejad's 2007 denial that there are any gays at all in Iran: a prima facie laughable claim, yet one that is also remarkably similar to Ivanova's denial of the existence of Soviet sex.
Of course, Western liberal democrats have little patience for apologetics for anti-gay persecution in the non-Western world that appeal to resistance against Western hegemony, etc. The radical left, in turn, seems to be divided: I have heard communists piping up recently to defend Mugabe's horrible anti-gay violence on the grounds that it needs to be 'understood within the Zimbabwean context', and it's probably all made up anyway by imperialist propagandists. A rather more eloquent and compelling defense of local contexts against the 'imperialism' of Western gayness was offered by Joseph Massad in his impressive 2007 book, Desiring Arabs.
I used to be somewhat more patient with Massad's line of reasoning, but watching events unfold recently in Russia has awoken me to the real-world consequences of the hands-off attitude toward cultural difference. Unlike the case of seks, where there is no one to persecute so that Ivanova's denial might come out true, in the case of geï there obviously are people whose lives are put in danger when their very way of being comes to be legally classified as illegal foreign propaganda. In actual fact, even if traditional Russian culture had its own way of classifying sexual acts and orientations, the thugs who take the enforcement of the law into their own hands have nothing traditional or distinctly Russian about them, but are only the very most common street-level fascists of the sort you might find anywhere in the world. In the current situation in Russia, the connection between the legislative action and the street action is so clear and undeniable that it would be willful blindness to condemn the illegal actions in the street while patiently respecting the legitimacy of the law itself.
What then, as Chernyshevsky asked long before Lenin, is to be done? I am not a big fan of boycotts, since in principle I think every state deserves to be boycotted, and I am so uninterested in sports as to consider not sending teams to athletic competitions to be the best strategy whatever the political climate happens to be. However, in this particular case I have come to strongly believe that an organized international boycott of the 2014 winter olympics in Sochi is the most fitting response to the current situation in Russia. I believe this because such a boycott stands a real chance of making a real difference. It would be focused, specific, and feasible. It would draw out existing rifts within Russian political culture (rifts that did not get a chance at expression in the Duma's vote last month). It would isolate Russia in a way it does not wish to be isolated.
Surprisingly, we've seen very little interest in such a boycott so far, though there does seem to be some rumbling of an organized movement coming out of Canada. I expect we'll see a clear movement take shape over the coming months. At a very practical level, one issue that will be forced out into the open is the fact that there are very many openly gay athletes slated to compete in the olympics, and it will be a huge embarrassment for Putin either to enforce, or refrain from enforcing, his ugly law against these high-profile figures.
I know self-styled progressives who believe it is not 'our' business to criticize Russia, and who actually say things to the effect that Putin cannot be all bad, since he's behind that RT network where they criticize GMO's and have Noam Chomsky on their talk shows. I really don't know who the 'we' of such people are. My 'we' includes Russian gays who are being beaten by fascist goons. Yours should too. Let's boycott the 2014 winter olympics.
To join the 'Boycott Sochi 2014' Facebook page, go here.
For superb reporting on LGBT issues in Russia, follow Masha Gessen.