Being gay in Russia is now a criminal act, and journalist Jeff Sharlet spent several weeks profiling a group of Russians who have increasingly gone underground or even into exile. His research culminated in a GQ article: Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.
Sharlet describes how Putin’s government, along with the Russian Orthodox Church and what he calls a fringe element — mostly tough-guy homophobes — work together in an “unholy trinity” to crack down on the country’s queer population. Violence against gays and widespread discrimination have been codified by a law that bans gay “propaganda” — a law that was passed by Putin’s government in June of 2013.
“The law is straight out of Russian literature,” says Sharlet.
We recently caught up and talked about the restrictions queer people face in the same country that hosted this year’s Winter Olympics.
JS: I think when I wrote that, it was before the invasion of Ukraine, and there were a lot more Putin apologists around. And I think there’s a sort of implicit assumption that a European nation with wealth is somehow in one way or another moderate in its governance. It’s just like how there are certain people who’ll say that all the anti-gay laws passed in Uganda were passed because it’s an African country. That’s just some old racist bullshit.
Putin’s government is no longer interested in even maintaining some kind of human rights norms. At least for LGBT rights, things [before Putin] were getting better — there were political lines you couldn’t cross, and now that’s turned around, I think not just for LGBT people. Putin has decided to really rule with a fist.
But the real keyword in that was imploding, I didn’t want to say it [civil society] was destroyed. Some of the aspects are still there — in terms of youth sports leagues — that’s all there, and that’s all intact. But in terms of NGOs, the ability for people to pursue sometimes political things, sometimes non, and freedom of the press — publishing, the banning of books. There’s sort of a larger sense of restriction on culture.
Is the gay community going increasingly underground?
It’s going underground or into exile, if you’re a middle-class person, if you have the resources — a lot of those people are looking into leaving. If you have kids I think it’s insane for you to not be investigating it. Laws like this are not made to be enforced. They’re made to terrify people.
One story I couldn’t fit in was about a lesbian couple with a kid. They were friendly with their neighbors, and their kids all played together. But since the law has passed, the heterosexual couple has decided to supplement their income by blackmailing the lesbian couple. [They’re threatening to turn the lesbian couple in to authorities if they don’t pay a certain amount of money.]
People have gone back into the closet, and there’s a whole generation of people who aren’t going to come out at all.
Given how scary it is to be openly queer in Russia right now, how did you actually meet LGBT people?
I had written about Uganda; I had a lot of connections with LGBT rights organizations. But my method as a writer is I don’t go with lots of important people lined up. I’m interested in regular people. To meet the people who become characters in the story, you go from person to person, you have a lot of conversations until someone connects you to a friend.
I knew going over that I was going to work with a regular translator. Zhenya [a queer activist] was just my kind of translator. He’s not a regular fixer. I knew I needed a queer translator. I’d already made that mistake in Uganda (of having a straight translator). Zhenya had been in exile, and so he was rediscovering his country sort of right alongside me.
In the story we meet a lesbian couple and a gay couple who pose as two separate straight families, who live next door to each other. You write, “In an upper-middle-class neighborhood close to Moscow’s city center, two apartments face each other. Two families, two daughters. They leave the doors open to allow easy access from one to the other.” In fact, the couples have raised two daughters together. So each daughter has two dads and two moms. The arrangement defuses suspicions that the daughters’ parents are all queer. I found this family, and the lengths they go to in order to stay safe, fascinating.
That family is so sad. I don’t know what will happen to them. I don’t think it’s going to be good. I think they will be broken up. Nik was a profoundly square man. This was a family man. Not an activist in any sense. He felt like he’d been pushed to the edge. He had met this woman. They just decided to have a family. That’s what he wanted. He realized as an adolescent that he was gay and also wanted to have a family. Then later he met Pavel, his partner.
You can sense the love he feels for his daughters.
Oh, I mean it really is, it’s very powerful. It’s [being in the closet] sort of — it’s driving him crazy. To me, I have two little kids, the thought of having to teach them that they could never call me father — there’s something so perverse about that.
Of course, in a country like Uganda, things are much worse. But there’s a way this law is like a law out of Russian literature. It’s perverse. It is a truly unnatural law.
You know in Uganda they banned homosexuality. But Russia, in a way, outlawed love. It is literally a crime for you to say that you love your partner as much as a heterosexual person loves her boyfriend. To assert equality is the crime.
While you were in Russia you visited several gay clubs. You used small vignettes of club life to break up your story. What was it like visiting these places given the atmosphere of fear and government crackdowns?
My editor wanted club scenes, and not only am I not a club person, but I was thinking, how am I going to get in? I don’t look… You don’t want me there! And Zhenya, my punk-rock translator, felt the same way. But we did end up there. And we pretty much covered the whole scene in two weeks. I would often go into the club and feel like I’m such a fucking dork here.
A lot of those people [who frequent clubs] feel like the law doesn’t affect them much at all. If you’re 22, unmarried, and living in Moscow, your day can begin at midnight. I met a gay go-go dancer, and he didn’t really know what’s going on in the rest of the world.
And I felt that without these vignettes of club life we have only villains and heroes. But the truth is, not everyone can become Rosa Parks, oppression breaks people.
And on the note of oppression, it seems to operate in a deeply wound-together system in Russia. Could you explain more about what you call the trilogy of Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the homophobic fringe element?
Yeah. The sort of unholy trinity.
The trinity is the flipside to civil society is imploding. [It operates with] a kind of brutal efficiency, which is true of homophobias in all places. We don’t always recognize that it’s not just backwoods evil people hurting queers — in the case of Russia, the state harnesses the church, the church has been so long suppressed and confused about its identity, and then there’s the rabble of the nationalist thugs.
They all get legitimacy from each other. The state needs the legitimacy of the church, the church needs the power of the state, and of course the rabble could use their energy to confront the fact that they don’t have a lot of economic opportunities, or [the thinking goes], “We could just go beat up a faggot and feel better faster.”
Homophobia is a giant bureaucracy of hate.
From your article I came away with the sense that anti-gay lawmakers in Russia learned their tactics from the American right wing.
There are many channels through which this is going. They get it from the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. One Russian lawmaker was deeply informed by the phony social science of the American Right. Homophobia in America is supposedly on the run, but we don’t recognize that some of the phony social science is being churned out by mainline academia as well.
The contemporary right wing is based on ideas, and ideas travel. There’s no conspiracy. There just need to be really awful ideas that can be amplified across other countries. They couldn’t pass the Arizona law [SB-1062], but they can contribute to those ideas becoming law around the world.