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From Russia with love

A Moscow gender studies school opens – and why the homophobes will never win

This article is part of a series on the gay scene in Russia in response to the country's horrific anti-gay laws. Read more here.

In the wake of Putin's anti-homosexual propaganda legislation, Russia's LGBT community have fought back with The Moscow Experimental School for Gender Studies which opened on 2 August. Its aims are to introduce contemporary Russian society to gender studies and feminist theory, as well as issues such as pornography, sex work and queer art, subjects which are not considered appropriate or important enough to provoke serious discussion in the public domain.

The continuing taboo of the body being a legitimate source of philosophical and social debate correlates with Russia’s puritan stance: if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. The success of the school in public education can already be measured in the number of demands to close it down on the grounds of “the possibility that children may occasionally visit lectures and become mentally scarred by the ideas expressed by the participants of the school." This is an alarming trend in sexual education in Russia: the status quo of a nuclear, heteronormative family is now being propagated not only on the community level, but in the political and ideological discourses as well. The government’s preoccupation with children is a convenient attempt to kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand, a legitimate reason to censor certain information is created, and on the other, a new generation of Russians is raised on the idea of there being right and wrong sexualities.

“Won't somebody please think of the children!?” is a general argument amongst people demanding censorship of LGBT issues. Society seems rather upset about the children. An obsession with kids has led to pedophile hunts, something the whole country can enjoy, and these hunts are now being complemented with similar homosexual sprees (the active crusaders of such activities being essentially the same crowd). Fighting homosexuality is now considered a deed to be done for the sake of Russia's future. Also gays are a much easier target. Many of the hunters are nationalists and aggressive youths looking to burn their energy in humiliating the weak.

Orthodox Christianity and homophobia have become the founding ideologies in contemporary Russia. Their proponents aspire to protect Russia from supposedly negative influences from Europe and America, to nurture the true Russian genius, and to defend Russia’s political and economical ‘stabilnost’ (stability).

Many people are frightened — and are being frightened by the regime adherents — of a return to the 90s, when there were several financial crises, uncontrolled criminals formed feuding mafia-like groups, president Yeltsin was the laughing stock of the world, and the government was despised. At the same time, there were also lots of people hailing the 90s as an epoch of freedom and liberty. There was, of course, some nationalism back then, but state-supported religion and homophobia were invented much later on.

In fact, homosexuality was not a widely understood phenomenon in the 90s. It was associated with transvestites and the Russian singer Boris Moiseev. There wasn’t much discussion around it, only ill-informed jokes. These days a gay teen knows that his/her sexuality is recognised by other people, even if it is not generally accepted. That’s a major step forward.

In the 90s the only serious books concerning LGBT issues that a teen researching his/her sexuality could stumble upon were by sexologist Igor Kon. In 2011, when Kon died, an official from the Russian Orthodox Church made a public statement voicing something close to a deep satisfaction with Kon's death, noting that this feeling is shared by all religious people in Russia. There is currently a bi-annual Gender Studies journal that is published by the Kharkov Centre for Gender Studies and a handful of seminars and lectures on LGBT and gender issues organised throughout Russia, but most are of academic interest. Public education remains one of the biggest concerns: people know, but they don’t know much, and so they don’t understand.

Both active LGBT-opponents and proponents form their own small communities, marking their territory, and do not interfere with the lives of ordinary Russians. But there are attempts of LGBT support from the likes of popular magazines such as Afisha and Bolshoi Gorod, which had special gay issues, and youth internet magazine The Village often posts news concerning LGBT. News about homosexuals results in torrents of wrath in the comments sections of their blogs. But the news always has a much higher rating than the homophobic comments.

Homophobes are driven by silliness or political ambitions (or both) and attack only well-known issues and events, such as the gay pride parade or Madonna’s concert. They are unable and often do not want to engage with real issues. TV journalist Dmitry Kiselev recently became one of the icons of the absurd homophobic rhetoric, having proposed to burn the hearts of homosexuals who died in a car crash, thus preventing them from being used as transplants. And when several activists tried to sue Madonna for the so-called “propaganda of homosexualism” during her Russian concerts, the judge himself ridiculed the complainants.

At the same time, Tom Krell was able to talk freely in support of LGBT rights in Russia at How to Dress Well concert at Moscow club Strelka this summer. His audience consisted mostly of young people constituting the so-called creative class, for whom sexual orientation is not a criterion of social difference. At the main Moscow gay club Central Station there is an entrance fee and the cocktails are 1.5-2 times more expensive than in other popular nightclubs. And it's always crowded.

Russia is going through changes that many European and American countries have already gone through. LGBT problems have at least been voiced aloud. Public attitude to different social issues has changed dramatically in recent years. We saw people ready to accept and understand many things, even though they need time to get used to them. Hate of the other may be the current state ideology, but it is not in the nature of people. Homophobes with their absurd statements and ambitions are doomed to fail.

This article is part of a series on the gay scene in Russia in response to the country's horrific anti-gay laws. Read more here.