Kelly Sans Culotte


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Gay Russia Today
Coming out of the woods.
By Camilla Roubleva


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MAY 13, 2004. On April 2, the latest attempt in the Russia legislature to recriminalize homosexuality was killed in committee. The bill, similar to the one submitted last year and the year before, was proposed by the Russian People's Party deputy, Gennady Raikov, chairman of the legislature's parliamentary ethics commission. Like many other Russians, the staunch Putin supporter blames gay men for the rise of HIV/AIDS and the disintegration of the traditional family.

In February, pseudo-lesbian singing sensation T.a.t.u. was blamed by Communist legislator Vasily Ivanovich Shandybin for his electoral loss in his home region of Bryansk. "Who do my countrymen trust? Perverts! After I built them a theater, after I got native women an ultrasound machine..."

The words "homosexual," "gay" and "lesbian" generally only appear in the Russian media as part of vituperative rants. The constant barrage of homophobia, along with a precarious legal status largely maintained to mollify the European Union, has squelched the early promise of lesbian and gay activism after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Organizing Heyday
After the post-Glasnost decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, there was a brief flurry of activity in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several queer political and social groups emerged, including the Tchaikovsky Fund, The Moscow Organization of Lesbians in Literature and Art (MOLLI), Wings, and Triangle, as well as publications like the newspaper Tema.

Some of these projects were sustained by Western European funds, particularly those promoting a Western model of politicizing sexual identity. Triangle, where Eugenia Debryanskaya was director, received an almost $40,000 grant from the European Commission's Tacis program, that assists several Eastern European and Central Asia countries. Debryanskaya was a political dissident in the 1980's and one of the first Russians to openly proclaim her homosexuality, in 1990.

Failure of these early projects have been blamed on everything from inexperience to the subsequent funding drought, a focus on Western organizing models, an apathetic community, even corruption.

By 2002, the only gay-oriented publication in all of Russia was Pyramid, a local paper in Nizhni Novgorod, a large city 400 kilometers east of Moscow. A local deputy halted distribution during election campaign maneuvering when an inflammatory political supplement was added without the knowledge of the editors. The newspaper folded shortly thereafter, mostly due to lack of funding.

Visibility
Gay Pride activities have been intermittently successful. In August 1998, in Moscow, queers determined to have a march coopted a Russian Flag Day celebration by unfurling their own rainbow flag along with a large banner declaring "Free love for free Russia." Since then, attempts to get official permits for gay marches have been rebuffed by the authorities.

Activists have been more successful in St. Petersburg. In 2002 they held their first Pride celebration, which included a march, and a series of parties in local gay night clubs. There have also been marches in Yekaterinburg, a city south-east of Moscow.

Aside from television appearances by the ersatz lesbian duo T.a.t.u., the only public acknowledgement of gay life found outside Russia's largest cities is buried in AIDS/HIV awareness materials.

Holding The Fort
Most queer activism these days in Russia happens on the cheap, organized by only a handful of people. The Internet is hugely important. Sites share basic information about lesbian and gay lives, and offer Russian queers a chance to socialize and support each other. Unlike print publications, websites have no print or distribution expenses, and they are also accessible to queers outside main urban centers.

Gay.ru is one of the survivors from the 90's. It began as an Internet discussion group in 1996, and remains extremely popular in both Russian and English. Its sister site, Lesbiru.com is growing by leaps and bounds. Lesbiru.com also organizes off-line activities like sporting events, picnics, and weekly lesbian parties in clubs. Lesbiru editors have also managed to publish two editions of a print magazine.

One woman in Moscow, who wants to be known only as H.M., is quietly inching queer rights forward by building a library of queer staples like Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, along with Russia's own Igor Kon, Sophia Parnok, and Marina Tsvetayeva, and dozens of unpublished texts and untranslated foreign authors. She has also collected Russian newspaper clippings about homosexuals, and piles of gay men's magazines that appeared and disappeared in the early and mid-1990's. The library, near the Rechnoi Vokzal metro stop, is open to the community on Thursdays.

Denis Gogolev and Mikhail Morozov have staged their own personal revolution, garnering criticism from both queers and homophobes when their marriage last year by a Russian Orthodox Priest was made public. Konstantin Yeogornov who edits a gay Web site, http://krug.polarcom.ru, in the northern city of Murmansk, snidely told the press, "This wedding shows just how much our homophobic society loves displaying dirty laundry."

Queer disapproval intensified after the priest was subsequently defrocked. Online at another gay site, Gayly.ru, some activists dismissed the whole gay marriage question as a purely American and European phenomenon. In an interview with The Gully, however, Vdova, the editor of the lesbian site Lesbiru.com, has said Russian queers "would be glad if the Russian legislature passed positive laws regarding homosexuality or legalized same-sex marriages, but they want these changes to fall from the sky without them lifting a finger."

Openly Gay — Behind Closed Doors
While traditional activism has dwindled, gay bars have slowly gained a footing. That they exist at all is already a significant advance in the Russian context. Ten years ago, opportunities for gay men to meet were limited to furtive cruising in public areas and bathrooms. Now, there are about 20 openly gay venues in the country, including Sinners, 69, and Jungle in St. Petersburg, and Three Monkeys, 12 Volts, Base, and Body and Soul in Moscow. Lesbians go to some of them. Many are also frequented by "progressive" straight youth.

Queer bars are legal and popular, despite periodic harassment by the police and media disinformation. During the November 2002 hostage crisis when a Moscow theater was held by Chechen militants, the Russian Special Force blasted their way in through the wall of an adjacent gay club, "Central Station-2." TV news coverage equated queers with terrorists. "Now at last we know who is behind the terror in Moscow," intoned a TV reporter.

The marriage ceremony for Denis Gogolev and Mikhail Morozov resulted not only in the defrocking of the priest, but the chapel where it was done was reportedly bulldozed and burned by order of the Orthodox Church.

In spite of these setbacks, a lesbian and gay infrastructure is gradually being built up. Organizations like Gay.ru have been allowed to officially register as non-profits. Plans are being made for community centers in the largest cities. Several travel agencies openly market trips to Western "gay Meccas" to Russian queers.

Gay Russia Under Church and State

From the Web

Lesbiru.com
Gay.ru
Gay.ru: Moscow's first gay pride


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