When LGBT Russians dared to hope

Monday, 22 May 2023 09:47 GMT

A law enforcement officer stands guard during the LGBT community rally "X St.Petersburg Pride" in central Saint Petersburg, Russia August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Author Paul Gould reflects on how LGBTQ+ life in Russia has changed from the 1950s to now

Paul David Gould’s Russia-based novel ‘Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants’ is published June 8 by Unbound

The police were on hand, watchful, suspicious – and armed. What sort of trouble they expected wasn’t clear. But as a precaution, they’d cordoned off the entrance to the Novorossiysk cinema, separating festival-goers from any would-be objectors.

For added visibility, strung along the cordon were hundreds of small pink triangles – an irony not lost on the organisers of what claimed to be Moscow’s first gay and lesbian film festival.

It was August 1991, barely weeks before the military coup that presaged the end of the USSR. Even then, staging such a festival was daring, a gamble on the unshackling of Soviet-era prohibitions known as glasnost.

Today, 32 years on, an LGBT festival like this would be banned in Putin’s Russia. A law passed in 2013 – and extended in 2022 – criminalises anything deemed to be ‘gay propaganda’.

That 1991 film festival was the subject of the first-ever article I ever had published, in the expat weekly Moscow Guardian. But the response from a Russian friend, when I proudly showed him the article, spoke volumes about Russian attitudes then and now: ‘Why’, he said, ‘did you choose such a sordid subject?’

Asked whether LGBT lives in Russian have improved or worsened since the end of the USSR, there’s no black-and-white answer. It’s not so much Now vs Then as Now vs Then vs Before.

By ‘before’, I mean pre-glasnost, the Soviet 1950s-1980s, when same-sex relations were taboo and sex between males was an imprisonable offence. ‘Now’ means Putin’s Russia, where same-sex relations are technically legal – but it’s a crime to defend them.

My time in Moscow was an in-between time. The early 1990s brought not only the collapse of the USSR and its command economy, not only Russia’s first McDonald’s and the abrupt shift to jungle capitalism – it also saw the sprouting of an underground gay scene.

It was a tentative scene. There were discos staged in outlying factories or disused sports halls; one was held at the Novorossiysk cinema. Venues would change from week to week, the details circulated by word of mouth or via a secret telephone number. Once you found the venue, it was a vision of disco lights and Western pop music hemmed in by walls plastered with five-year plans and Communist Party slogans.

Frequenting these underground discos elicited a frisson of excitement tinged with fear. Once, when a disco was ambushed by thugs, a few partygoers got badly beaten up. Possibly riskier were Moscow’s cruising grounds, the square by the Bolshoi Theatre and nearby Revolution Square metro station where guys hung around statues of Soviet soldiers in search of hook-ups.

I was astounded that a gay scene existed at all. But I recall the words of former Guardian correspondent Martin Walker in the Collins Independent Travellers Guide to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, Walker wrote, ‘nothing is allowed, but everything is possible’.

Just four years ago, a St Petersburg activist told me that Putin’s suppression of LGBT voices was at least mitigated by access to the internet and Russians’ experience of the West.

Any mitigating factors were snuffed out by the war in Ukraine and the torrent of lies spewed by the Kremlin and Russian state media. Putin’s tightening crackdown on ‘gay propaganda’ and the threat of jail for calling the war a war means, today, that less and less is allowed or possible.

In 1998, sociology professor Jeffrey Weeks told me that British gay men mostly owed growing acceptance of their lifestyles to market forces, the ‘pink pound’, disposable income and all that. Yet these same market forces have driven the hollowing-out of Soho and Vauxhall: an estimated 120 or more gay bars and clubs have closed in London since the early 2000s.

The turn that Russia has taken since the Soviet collapse carries a wider warning for us all: that we shouldn’t invest too much faith in free-market capitalism as a sure-fire guarantee of democracy and human rights.

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