With the Olympics in Sochi, Russia’s politics have come under international scrutiny. With increased media attention, Russia’s controversial policies on homosexuality have caused global outrage, with multiple online petitions urging Olympic game sponsors to withdraw in protest. Cher, who was asked to perform at the opening ceremony, rejected the offer.
Homophobic attitudes have been rife among influential Russian politicians. President Vladimir Putin claimed that homosexuals could attend the Olympics so long as they ‘just leave the children alone.’ Anatoly Pakhomov, mayor of Sochi, claimed that ‘We don’t have [gay people] in our town’, and also said that homosexuals were welcome at the games so long as they ‘don’t impose their habits on others.’
Brutal attacks on homosexuals have frequently occurred at gay pride events and on the internet in Russia. In June of 2013, Russian law imposed a ban on the promotion of ‘non-traditional’ sexuality to people under the age of 18, making information on homosexuality inaccessible. The law also depends largely on its interpretation – many people see it as a bid to undermine and prevent gay rights protests. I wanted to find out just how embedded homophobic views were in Russia; whether the legislation was representative of general public opinion. I interviewed Lara and Roxanne, two Russian students at Leeds University who spent their year abroad in Moscow, about their experiences of homophobia in Russia.
Did you witness homophobia personally while you were in Moscow?
R: Yes, homophobic attitudes became increasingly apparent when I asked other young people about their attitudes towards the gay community. On the topic of ‘having a gay child’ it was often said that the person would be angry and disown their child. Once I expressed shock at this and I was told that ‘it’s OK if my friends are. I have a gay friend! As long as it’s not my child.’
L: I didn’t see any violence or hear anything explicitly homophobic, but on a few occasions I heard people expressing the opinion that being gay is not OK, normal, or accepted. But friends of mine did hear some pretty shocking things including the opinion that they should be round up and shot.
You were both in Russia when the ‘anti-propaganda’ laws were passed in June 2013. What did people in Russia have to say about it?
R: Interestingly, I didn’t hear anything about it. Nothing was mentioned amongst the groups of Russians I hung out with.
L: Honestly, I knew very little about what was going on. Despite having to read newspapers in class, I never saw anything regarding the legislation. I only saw it on the BBC website. The only person I discussed it with was a friend of mine who was disgusted by the news. However, her views seemed more progressive than most people her age, potentially because she had lived abroad a lot.
There’s been a big international backlash against the legislation, especially in light of the Sochi Olympics. Was there any notable backlash or protest in Moscow?
L: No. If something that was to happen in England that was controversial, you might expect to hear people talking about it, even on the street. In Moscow, I noticed nothing.
R: I asked my gay friend whether there were any protests occurring in Russia. I mentioned an article I had read about homosexual people being publicly humiliated and discriminated against. He responded by saying that this wasn’t the case; people should visit Moscow for themselves and they would see that there weren’t any ‘real’ problems.
Was gay culture apparent in Moscow?
L: Not really. But there must have been a few gay clubs because I met a group of international girls in Moscow who were lesbians going to a gay club. They said that they would never ask for directions to a gay club on the street. Gay culture that is there, clearly isn’t very visible. I’m not sure how this would compare to St Petersburg which is said to be more ‘European’ than Moscow. But Moscow’s deemed pretty cosmopolitan, so I was quite surprised that I never heard of any gay clubs.
R: Gay culture in Moscow exists, however it appears as quite an undercover scene. I have even heard of flower- shops, in order to disguise themselves, converting into underground gay clubs at night. It’s very much seen as a separate culture. Often when I was out in public with my Russian friend, who is a gay, he would speak to me in Russian, then switch to English to mention ‘going to the ‘G’ club.’
Do you think the homophobic legislation is a reflection of homophobic opinions amongst the general public?
L: Unfortunately, yes. Russia is a very religious place and I think a lot of the homophobia there stems from religious ideas regarding homosexuality.
R: Russia is massive, so it’s hard to say. Having heard that Moscow and St. Petersburg aren’t ‘the real Russia’ because of how ‘Western’ and ‘modern’ they are, I am afraid to say that it may be the case that in the rest of the country there is homophobia amongst the general public.
Would you be scared to be openly gay in Moscow?
R: I would definitely feel uncomfortable being openly gay in Moscow. Especially at bars and the metro where there are large groups of aggressive drunk young men who often label themselves as ‘football hooligans’ and seek out opportunities to start fights. Whilst there is a gay culture, it seems to be hidden. To have to be careful and feel ashamed about myself during the day is something that is truly terrifying.
L: Yes, I would be terrified to be openly gay in Moscow, and if I was gay, I wouldn’t feel comfortable travelling to Russia. However, I felt nervous coming to Russia as I am of Indian heritage, and had no problems. But I imagine gay people travelling around Russia would have to be careful who knew they were gay, because a lot of people wouldn’t be very accepting.
Did you come into contact with anyone who was openly gay?
L: No. I met people who I knew were gay, but who never expressed it openly. This is probably a reflection of the treatment of gay men in Russia.
R: One of the first friends I made in Moscow was a man who worked at the reception of the office I worked at. He is very camp, which was particularly noticeable in Moscow – all the other men I crossed seemed eager to be ‘typically’ masculine. Towards me and his friends, he was openly gay. However, in public in Moscow and even on Skype when we speak Russian, he switches to English to mention anything at all to do with being gay. He usually did this because he lives with his mother and brother who ‘probably know’ but ‘don’t ever talk about it’. When I question him about this, or ask if the fact that he can’t mention ‘being gay’ in public bothers him, he says that it is just life, it’s the way it is. He is happy with himself and no-one is stopping him from living his life. He acknowledges an omnipresence of homophobia in Russia, but has accepted that it is just part of life in Russia.
Interview by Helen Fanthorpe