A popular meme surfaced on Russian social media last week in light of the Winter Olympics, wherein the apparent dialogue alluded to the fact that you don’t have to embody the causes that you
A popular meme surfaced on Russian social media last week in light of the Winter Olympics, wherein the apparent dialogue alluded to the fact that you don’t have to embody the causes that you fight for. This was of particular relevance to the law regarding the promotion of gay propaganda to minors, introduced in Saint Petersburg early last year. почему вы поддерживаете геев? вы что, гей? -Why doyou support gays? Are you gay?
почему вы поддерживаете Путина? вы что, путин? – Why do you support Putin? Are you Putin?
But what we rarely hear, is how the Russian population have understood this law and what they plan to do (or not), about it.
From 13 March, gay marriage will be legal in the UK and so from a ‘western’ standpoint, this law in Russia is abhorrent. I too thought it ridiculous, insulting and backward (incidentally, all the things that Russia is aiming to move away from being associated with politically) before I ventured out to St Petersburg in September 2013 for my third year abroad.
As a languages student, it was expected of me to spend a minimum of 16 weeks in Russia in order to develop my language skills. I was originally utterly scared and disgusted by the thought of spending 4 months in a country where I couldn’t support causes that I strongly care about.
A change in generation
However, during my time in St Petersburg I witnessed same-sex couples holding hands in the street, a gay cross-dresser on a day time TV talk show and even a week-long gay film festival.
Granted, there were some interesting reactions to these things I’d witnessed—when watching the TV talk show, my host (a roughly 75 year old woman, born and bred in the midst of communism) couldn’t stop laughing at the cross-dresser (who also happened to be black) which prompted some even more antagonistic comments.
The gay film festival was boycotted by rioters and the venue had to be changed several times due to building owners not wanting to be associated with the festival theme. However the same-sex couples I saw walking down the street didn’t get even a strange look (as far as I saw).
This can be explained by the St Petersburg Times, who interviewed a gay expat from America. “No one in Russia would ever presume to think that anyone could be gay—irrespective of their mannerisms, the way the dress or the company they keep,” he commented, when asked about Russian attitudes to homosexuality.
My host also made an interesting comment that “there were no gays in Russia before the collapse of the USSR,” and subsequently, communism.
But what I tried to keep in mind (even if it was just to help me keep my mouth shut), was that older generations who had grown up at the height of communism would never have been subject to sexual freedom in any sense. Those who would seek help or advice about their sexuality would have no way of knowing what was ‘wrong’ with them or why they couldn’t understand why they were ‘different’ from everyone else.
The power of education
Being gay was not an option in soviet Russia.
And whilst freedom of sexual expression is being suppressed in Russia, transsexuality and cross dressing are even more frowned upon. But again, this would be a totally new concept to anyone who hadn’t been outside of Russia in the last 20 years.
The idea is that once a concept is ingrained from childhood (i.e. that having ‘different’ ideas about sexuality or gender is wrong), that younger generations will snub any efforts to integrate freedom of expression into Russian society.
So whilst corrective rapes of lesbians, brutal beatings of gays and boycotting of legal LGBT festivals still happen in Russia (and are conveniently ignored by the Russian media), the Russian people are not any the wiser about what the real issue is within their society.
Maybe instead of boycotting Sochi from a western standpoint, we should unify our efforts into educating Russians about the struggle of LGBT individuals in their own country, as long as they’re not ‘minors’ of course.
What do you think of the law? What can be done? Have your say in the comments section below.