Kelly Sans Culotte


Young [queer] Russia
Pondering "the gay question."

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

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The Other Siberia: Gay Russia Under Church and State

APRIL 11, 2003. As the Russian parliament deliberated over, and finally rejected, a bill to recriminalize homosexuality last year, The Gully talked to a 23 year-old Russian graduate student in mathematics at a U.S. university about what it is like to be gay in Russia.

He decided to remain anonymous for reasons outlined in the article.

When I read about the bill to recriminalize homosexuality in Russia, I could not work for two days, and spoke of little else for a week. If not for the Council of Europe, the law would be there today (in fact, if it weren't for it, the original Soviet law would never have been repealed). Note that one of the proponents of the law, Dmitri Rogozine, officially represents Russia at the Council of Europe.

When I visited Russia over the summer and talked to some gay people there, I was surprised to learn how undisturbed they were. Apparently, they were certain that the law would not be passed, because Russia does not want to be kicked out of all European organizations.

It was very clear to me, though, and the Russian press shared my opinion unanimously, that if Europe were not a factor, the Russian Parliament would have passed the recriminalization bill with no opposition at all.

Blame The Fags
Russian society is not gay-tolerant. Most Russians think homosexuality is a perversion. The population of Russia is decreasing at an alarming rate and, of course, it is all because of the fags.

There were anti-gay laws in place when I was growing up, though I was not aware of them until they were repealed [in 1993]. In 1991, I remember very distinctly watching a TV segment about the decriminalization of homosexuality in "600 seconds," a news program by Alexander Nevzorov, which was very popular at the time.

The broadcast was extremely hostile and insulting. I sensed my family was sympathetic to it. I hope I'm not overinterpreting now when I recall my feeling then, even though I didn't yet realize I was gay, that the program was about me as well.

Even now, mention homosexuals in public without a grimace of displeasure or bring up gay rights, and you'll have to withdraw from Russian politics forever. I would like to see gay marriage and gay adoption in Russia. But I doubt it will happen in ten years, even in 50.

Moscow's Gay Terror
You should be aware that during the November 2002 hostage crisis, when the Russian Special Force entered the theatre held by Chechens, they did it by exploding a wall in an adjacent gay club, "Central Station-2."

It was newly opened, and the largest gay club in Moscow. It was called "Central Station-2" because the first "Central Station" had been closed "for technical reasons" (my guess: displeasure of the authorities).

Some news commentators hinted, "now at last we know who is behind the terror in Moscow." The implication was, at minimum, that the construction workers involved in building the gay club could be bribed to bring the explosives in the theater through the adjacent building, at most, that the owners of the gay club were themselves "accomplices of the terrorists."

The damage wasn't minor. After the explosion, the club lay in ruins. The equipment was stolen, the furniture vandalized, "Filthy fags" was inscribed on the window panes. Nevertheless, the owner, Ilya Abaturov, in an interview with, said that he would rebuild and reopen on the 40th day after the act of terror, following the Russian tradition of the 40 days of mourning. According to their website, it remains closed.

Caravaggio's Child
I realized I was gay only very gradually. I remember being strongly attracted to boys quite a bit before puberty, but at the time I didn't draw any conclusions about it.

When I was in high school I even had a boyfriend, and I believe I did subconsciously understand my gayness but, as I said, I didn't think too much about it. I recall now that I had a slight guilt complex about our erotic friendship, and so did he, even more than I; but I wanted him too much for our common pleasures to be spoiled by guilt.

It was a pleasant surprise when I learned at about age 15 that Tchaikovsky was gay. And then, Oscar Wilde. Later, I knew in great detail the biography of Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde's trial, Pier Paolo Pasolini's death, the story of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and so forth.

The thought, "Yes, I am gay," finally came to me when I was about 17, after I watched Derek Jarman's Caravaggio.

Coming Out
The first person I told was a boy I was attracted to. It was really more a declaration than a coming out. That was in December 1996. He wasn't interested, but we still talk. After that I came out to an older gay man whom I had known for a while and with whom I subsequently had an extremely disagreeable sexual relationship.

Then, I came out to a slightly older graduate student at the Russian university where I was doing my undergraduate work. Psychoanalysis was his hobby, so he suggested that I go see a colleague of his who was a psychotherapist. That gentleman talked to me (free of charge), declared that I was indeed gay, and made a few suggestions about what I should do.

He was very sympathetic, an interlocutor I was extraordinarily lucky to have. He was of the opinion, which I do not share, that homosexuality was a genetically-conditioned deviation.

Both the graduate student and the psychotherapist he sent me to were Orthodox Christians actively involved in a group based on the ideas of the late Father Alexander Men, who advocated an "open model of Christianity."

Generation Gap
I am out to most of my close friends, half of my immediate family, and a large circle of American acquaintances. Many people both in Russia and here in the United States guess or know that I am gay, and I know that they know, but we never discuss it.

Broadly speaking, Russians my age are tolerant, while people of the older generation are much less so. Girls of my generation are, as usual, slightly more tolerant than boys.

Right now, it's impossible for me to use my family name in any gay connection. My mother thinks that if my stepfather knew he would ban me from talking to my 12 year-old half-brother (my mother's and his son), afraid he would be "seduced to gayness" by my example.

I actually doubt that my stepfather would react as negatively as my mother predicts, but I respect her wishes, and am not out to him.

Also, American academia, as I know it, is full of gossip to the brim, and I would not like to be talked about as "the guy who gets interviewed in gay magazines." The math world is not particularly conservative, and I don't think I would be taken less seriously as a professional, but it is unpleasant to be gossiped about.

My personal style is rather clearly gay, but my sexual preference is a private matter. I would never wear a rainbow tie. If I were straight, I would not wear an "I am straight" T-shirt, either. Not wishing to make an issue of one's private life is hardly just a Russian phenomenon.

At the same time, I can imagine being out as a gay man in a more public way in the future.

Making Peace with Religion
I am perhaps slightly more radical because I am gay; but I am naturally very conservative. I am shocked by abortion, as was Pier Paolo Pasolini. It's unpleasant to me that the gay question is usually mixed with other leftist polemics for which I often have no sympathy at all.

On the other hand, I quite realize that gay rights are fought for by the left, and that many conservatives would like us all in jail.

After realizing I was gay, I struggled with religion for a long time. I personally hated Saint Paul for a few years; I am much more at peace with him now. In a Forsterian manner, I wanted the Church "to compromise with me," and, of course, it would not.

When I visited one of the most important monasteries in Russia I went to talk to the Head Abbot, a truly enlightened man as I can personally testify, about homosexuality and Christianity. Unfortunately, on that topic we had no common ground.

Our views chiefly differed upon the relation of Christianity and Art (we had a lovely conversation about Mozart, whom he, too, admired; but I declared that Mozart was a saint, and he disagreed), and upon the compatibility of homoeroticism and Christianity (which he denied on well-known Biblical grounds).

I am at peace now with this. My position as a sympathetic outsider with regards to the Church suits me well.

Culture Clash
I decided to go to an Ivy League school in the United States mainly for academic reasons, though I thought the climate for gays would be better as well, and, yes, it is.

I am not sure yet whether I will return home or not. That will mainly depend on professional circumstances, though I must say nonetheless that homosexuality is an additional reason for not wishing to live in Russia permanently.

My experience as an immigrant in the lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender community in the United States is not so different from that of most Russians in America.

Many Americans one meets seem bad-mannered, crude, ignorant, full of themselves, and afraid of everything. Others seem polite, educated, cultured, and capable of human contact. These things are independent of sexual orientation.

Naturally, when one meets another gay person, there is one more thing in common; but there are many more things beside a common interest in men to unite people.

Gay Like Tchaikovsky
For instance, here, at the University, I tried to contact the Gay Alumni Association to discuss a little idea of mine. I told them, the anniversary of Tchaikovsky is coming up. Why don't you organize a little concert?

We could invite a young pianist, there are so many who would be so happy, it would cost very little, Tchaikovsky's piano music is less known than it deserves to be, we would do a service to the community, host an important cultural event, and promote awareness at the same time.

Answer: "What, was Tchaikovsky gay?"

I explain that he was.

A polite silence.

"Well, you see, we can't quite organize a concert. You see, if it were a panel discussion of issues related to homosexuality, then, yes; but, a concert, no. Or if we could get someone to speak about homosexuality, if we could have a discussion on homosexuality, then, perhaps..."

Imagine what Tchaikovsky would have said if his music were performed along with a panel discussion of homosexuality! Put yourself in his place! But that is not all: now comes my favorite part:

"...Or if you could get the Alumni Journal to write about this and raise wider issues on campus, then, perhaps; but otherwise, no, no, we can't spend money on a concert."

How can I associate with this style of activism?

Gay and Straight
I think there should be no "gay question." Sexuality should no more distinguish a person than hair color.

"Gay" and "straight" worlds are very similar to each other, much less different than many straights and many gays believe.

I wish society knew that gay people are not only those who cluster in bars, pierce every limb, and sleep with a new partner every night. That many gays want to have families and children just as much as the straight do. That in essence the gay are in no way different from the straight.

In fact, many straight people want to be childless, pierce themselves, and hang out in bars.

The only distinction I can think of in gay men is a slightly heightened perception of the artistic: but even that I start to doubt now that I have made the acquaintance of the gay activists here at my university.

Homoeroticism, in my view, is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, not a political one.

From the Web
Gay Love Letters from Tchaikovsky to his Nephew
Famous gays in history
Father Alexander Men
Derek Jarman's Caravaggio
Pier Paolo Pasolini

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