Sometimes the absurd details are what stand out the most when Russians describe the effects of the new and ill-defined anti-gay “propaganda” law on everyday life.
One gay couple I spoke with, newly arrived in the U.S., recently posted photos to Facebook of their wedding day at New York City Hall. Their parents back in Russia sent them congratulations, and so did the elder sister of one of the grooms, but she had to wait until evening to look at the pictures online, after her children had gone to sleep. “After all, it’s illegal in Russia: You can’t show the kids,” her brother told me. Another Russian, a journalist who was recently fired from his job after he came out, described the rhetorical gymnastics that his former network had to engage in to report on the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year without mentioning that the winner of the Palme d’Or, Blue Is the Warmest Color, is a steamy lesbian romance.
Thus is the work of trying to make LGBT people in Russia invisible, carried out by President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party. The new law banning “homosexual propaganda,” passed in June, has only been applied a handful of times to date, but that’s enough: Individuals and institutions change their behavior accordingly so as not to run afoul of it. But like most heavy-handed attempts at prohibition, the law is also triggering a powerful backlash, uniting the Russian LGBT community in new ways, out of necessity and solidarity, and making outspoken activists out of people who previously lived their lives quietly and under the radar.
For some other LGBT Russians, it’s pushing them to speak out in a different, more intimate way — sharing the details of their love lives, the ups and downs of their relationships, memories of their first kiss — making public the parts of their lives that are, under current Russian law, now illegal in the telling. These are the stories that I and a colleague, Russian journalist Masha Gessen, are chasing down right now: love stories from LGBT Russians living in Moscow and smaller cities all over the country, and from Russian émigrés around the world, who make up an increasing flood. We’re collecting them in a book, Gay Propaganda, which will be published in both English and Russian on the eve of the controversial 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.