Review of Gay Propaganda by Sally Mayor



I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sat down to read Gay Propaganda but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be so affected by it. It’s a book of Russian gay love stories told by the men and women in them, some are still living in Russia and others have been forced to leave.

The book is funny, moving, familiar in some ways and shocking in others. Yet the feeling that stayed with me the longest is anger; anger that this could be happening in the 21st century; anger that that this is happening so close to us; anger that I don’t know what I – we – can do to help. I do know that rainbow logos, gay adverts and mocking Putin for holding the “gayest games” ever aren’t enough though.

Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon hurriedly collated the stories, interviews and testimonials in Gay Propaganda (so named because the anti-gay laws in Russia have made ‘promoting homosexuality’ illegal) in two months before the Winter Olympics started in Sochi.

Their aim was simply to break down stereotypes of “gay people” by sharing their experiences with the world. The book was written in the tradition of Samizdat, which spreads banned writing through underground networks and contacts away from the censuring eye of the authorities.

stock-photo-t-shirt-_blue_GayPropaganda_120313The Foreword, written by Garry Kasparov, talks about Putin’s dictatorship and puts the laws into context. He speaks of Putin’s own propaganda, his attempt to unite a country against a common enemy that cannot defend itself from attack. Kasparov also draws parallels between what is happening in Russia today and what took place in Germany in the 1930s.

Rather than attempt to tackle the complex social and economic problems in Germany at that time, Hitler created scapegoats to hang the blame on. Putin is doing exactly the same thing, he’s manipulating anti-West feelings that are easy to ignite. How much easier is it to blame the decadent West for the gays and their evil ways than look at his own regime?

The stories felt familiar in lots of ways, they show people falling in love at first sight (“Neither of us wanted to part, not then, not later and never again”), breaking up, having affairs, first kisses, trying to conceive, coping with in-laws, fake marriages, sex, casual homophobic jokes that wound.

As a gay woman, I found myself relating to much of what the storytellers said, whether from my own personal experience or that of people I know. The fear of being rejected by your family and those who love you, worrying that your sexuality has caused someone’s illness, dealing with internalised homophobia, the parents who don’t understand homosexuality and send their daughter to see a psychologist because she’s been “unlucky with men”.

Despite some of the horrific stories there’s lots of humour in the book too. Wes, who is now in his 40’s, moved from Russia to Seattle when he was 16 and changed his name from Vasili Naumenko to Wes Hurley. He says his life has “turned into a Pedro Almodovar movie”.  His Grandma writes to him complaining about how intolerant other people in Russia are and how she’s trying to change them, having thought the same as them not so long ago.

Denis’s Mum cried for four days when he told her he was gay but now she gives him advice on how to pull men. Denis, of all the contributors, came across as really confident and he has bucket loads of self-respect, he knows how he should be treated and no one’s going to treat him differently. A few of the others seemed naive in comparison.

Elena and Marina, gay women, both married men when they were 20. They were attracted to each other when they met and started sleeping together “because they can’t get pregnant”. When their husbands found out about the relationship they were excited by it (we’ve never heard that one before have we ladies?) and wanted to give their wives sex toys – how could two women possibly enjoy themselves in bed without a penis.

Where the stories were a million miles from anything I’ve experienced was in the brutality. Any reference to homosexuality or a gay lifestyle (what even is that?) is illegal in Russia. That means in writing, in art, in speech, in education, in the media. It means Ivan and Aleksandr’s nephew isn’t allowed to see photos of his uncles’ wedding in case it makes him gay.

I loved the story of Olga and Irina who met and fell in love when they were both 19 and broke up when they were 22. Twenty-two years later, by which time they both had children, they wooed each other over ice cream (Olga said, “I don’t eat ice cream, but I thought that when you’re wooing someone you should always offer them ice cream”) and now live together.

Contrast that with them going to an officially-sanctioned gay pride event where a homophobic mob starts pelting them with stones and breaking bottles over people’s heads – because of who they share their beds with.

Alla Gorik, a 27-year old lesbian, talks about a friend of hers who is “obviously gay” and is often beaten up. When she left Russia and moved to New York “he had stitches in his face”.

GayPropaganda_CVR_GIF_020414I hadn’t realised that scores (I don’t know the numbers) of gay Russians have left the country for the safety of other parts of Europe and the U.S. Alexander and Mikhail are currently in the States having applied for asylum there, they are waiting to hear whether it’s been granted or not.

When they lived in Russia they got home one evening and found their roommate’s body a short distance from their house with a shattered skull, obviously he’d been murdered. “No one knows what happened. They say that he came out to someone. The police didn’t really bother to investigate”.

The couple were threatened and told that they could be arrested at any time because of their relationship and people like them “should be shot anyway”, so they left.

There are lots of other shocking examples in the book. Lena’s father thinks that gays “belong in the gas chamber”, and her girlfriend, Nastya’s, father beat up his own daughter until her face was blue and needed six stitches. The recent laws have served to strengthen people like that’s beliefs. Nastya’s mother now tells her she’ll be locked up and her father has suggested she tries sleeping with men. “My father said, ‘Go and try doing it with a man. What if you like it?’ I said, ‘How about you go first? If you like it I’ll try it too”.

When Marina’s parents kidnap their own grandchild the police don’t help Marina get her child back. Why would they create work for themselves when a bill has been passed in parliament mandating the removal of children from parents suspected of being gay or lesbian?

You read that right.

Oleg, a 33-year old man, worked in TV until he came out on Facebook. He had people contacting him from around the country telling him he was a hero, how brave he was to come out. And it was brave because he was fired from his job immediately. There are lots more like him who’ve been sacked the moment their employers found out about their sexuality.

Oleg also volunteered at a large children’s hospital in Moscow for 5 years and knows exactly how blood donations are treated and screened. Yet when he offered to donate blood they didn’t want it because homosexuality “is a sickness”. Then there’s Tatiana’s father telling her that, “homosexuals are all rich perverts who are so overindulged in pleasures that they turn to unnatural acts for entertainment”. Part of me wants to laugh and say “if only” – but it’s not funny.

Olga brings up the question of what can be done about the laws and wave of homophobic attacks, she says, “We need to protest and fight, but there is no sense that it will make anything better. At the same time, we know we only have one life to live, and we want to live it in peace, to walk down the street, be happy, and not be afraid that a rock is going to come flying at us”.

The last line of the book, spoken by Nata, shows great humility, “But our society is probably not ready for any of this. We understand that”. Not ready for gay marriage or not ready to pursue murderers and stop violent attacks? You can only let people off for so much.

You’ll find lightness and laughter in Gay Propaganda too. Anchei and Roman run the only gay bar in Sochi where they host drag shows, they reckon that the transvestites are the most popular performers in Sochi. They had no problems with the authorities in the run up to the Winter Olympics, the police popped in once to ask whether they’d be translating their menu into English for the visitors and that was it.

Theirs is the only bar that’s open seven days a week and they haven’t experienced any homophobia. Roman’s family have always supported him, as his father told him, “Whatever grew, grew. You’re my son”.

More than humour, horror or humility, at the heart of Gay Propaganda is love. You can dehumanise someone by reducing them to who they’re attracted to and what they do in bed but you can’t legislate against love. Love will overcome any abuses or laws. But I wouldn’t want to be a gay woman in Russia right now

Gay Propaganda is published in Russian and English by OR Books

You can buy it here:

Publication February 2014

224 pages 
Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-35-0

E-book ISBN 978-1-939293-36-7

Sally is a brilliant copywriter and can be found on Google and also on her website here

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