Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression Part 1: Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide

by Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger, ’16

This is the first of a four part series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.

This is a long post. If you are short on time, read the introduction to the series, and the last two paragraphs (italicized) of the following section entitled “A History of Russian Homosocial and Sexual  Regulations.”

8-8 Gay ImperialismLast December, I wrote a two part series about the oppressive nature of the Olympics and World Cup, how they both have been used as excuses for social cleanups that ultimately displace race and class underprivileged peoples and waste millions, if not billions, of state dollars that could otherwise be spent on social programs aimed at public health and education, among other things. Now, another injustice is becoming known across the US and the world, the horrific oppression of LGBT peoples across Russia, that might also have the potential to influence the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

For those unfamiliar, Russia passed a law banning non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors, which is a formal way of banning demonstrations or actions in favor of LGBT peoples, identities, or issues.*. The law is not restricted to Russian citizens; it would apply to any person within Russia’s borders and has in fact already been used against 4 Dutch citizens who were filming a documentary about LGBT life in Russia. The Russian government has at times assured the International Olympic Committee that it will not prosecute foreign Olympic visitors, participants, or nationals, and at other times maintained that they will be subject to arrest if they violate the ban. Currently at the time of publication, it appears that Russia will prosecute anyone, including athletes, who are violation the law.

So far, there’s been a huge backlash against Russia within America.. Gay personalities famous among the heterosexual and cisgender USA like Dan Savage and Harvey Fierstein  have written op-eds imploring people to raise their awareness and help the gay Russians through boycotts of Russian vodka and the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

I am genuinely concerned about the LGBT citizens of Russia. Their lives—not just their ability to express themselves, but their ability to live—are threatened by Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, not directly by the state, but by the violent reaction the recent anti-LGBT legislation has fueled (Jason Cieply, August 8th). The worst example is the work of a group named Occupy Pedophilia that lured gay people to meetings and harassed them with torture weapons. An investigation of the group by the police found Nazi propaganda among the weapons, as of yet, there has been no arrest and the members are still free.

But that being said, the actions and potential steps that Western powers and individuals are being asked to take against Russia, namely a boycott of the Sochi Olympic Games (and,  if needed, potentially the FIFA World Cup in 2018, which will also be held in Russia) must be carefully scrutinized. Upon a deeper understanding of the context surrounding laws pertaining to sexual minorities, a boycott will do nothing but perpetuate a problem that the we Western powers and individuals helped create in the first place (note: from now on, when I say we, I mean Western powers and individuals unless otherwise specified).

*It should be noted that discussion of alternative sexual identities in Russia has exploded recently, especially on the web, with few facing repercussions. Most of the people charged under the new law are also charged with disturbing the peace, in that their demonstration are more flagrant and visible and specifically aimed at violating the law. According to Stanford Instructor of Slavic Languages and Literature Jason Cieply, living in St. Petersburg, there has been “an acute reticence to administer the law” by law enforcement, indicating that the hype against the law in America has been largely overstated.

A History of Russian Homosocial and Sexual Regulation

Like most empires and nations at the time, Tsarist Russia strictly prohibited male same-sex sexual acts and made an active effort, depending on the ruler, to eradicate “woman haters” from various parts of the Russian government and military forces. Yet with urbanization at the turn of the 20th century, some larger cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow developed a small number of brothels aimed at males desiring same-sex encounters. There were even some prominent writers and artists in semi-open same-sex relationships. Overall, though, being a sexual or gender minority in Russia was difficult and could be lonely, especially if you lived in a more rural or Orthodox area (note: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are contemporary terms far too often anachronistically applied to times and locations where they were not used, and when no person ever identified as them. Therefore, I’ll refrain from using that acronym unless discussing a period in which it is used).

It’s worth noting, however, that before the 1700s, Russia’s ancestor, Muscovy, and before that the tribes under the Prince of Kiev, did not have such a condemnatory view of same-sex sexual acts and romance. They were not promoted, and weren’t viewed necessarily as good acts. Records from around the turn of the first millennium show that early Slavic tribes punished nearly all types of non-procreative sex the same, barely differentiating between masturbation and same-sex sexual acts. Later on in the 16th and 17th centuries, Muscovy had no laws banning same-sex sexual acts, although religiously and socially they were very frowned upon. Nonetheless, according to outside Western European observers, there were a variety of tacitly homosocial and sexual spaces during this time period, from the military to sex-segregated bath houses, where young boys were sometimes paid to engage in sexual acts with the patrons.

I discuss this pre-1700s history in order to contrast it with Russia’s geopolitical outlook after contact with Western European observers. Contact between Muscovy and Western Europe considerably increased in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and these Western visitors to Russia brought with them a western point of view. The Western views they brought did not simply impacted the legality of sodomy, but permanently altered the Russia’s geopolitical outlook.

According to the encyclopedia glbtq:

European visitors carried a complex array of negative Western Christian and secular views about male-male sex with them to Moscow, and their reports were written to appeal to a home audience holding those values too. What is more, these visitors’ reports were part of a cultural trend in which Western Europe began to imagine Eastern Europe as a place that was Christian but only barely “civilized.” These stories of sodomy in Muscovy may well have been accurate, but a certain degree of exaggeration to emphasize Muscovy’s “primitive” and “barbaric” character cannot be easily dismissed.

It’s important to understand that Western Europe viewed itself as significantly more advanced than Russia, because that perceived superiority impacted Peter the Great’s desire to westernize Russia, from the establishment of “western” St. Petersburg in 1703 to the outlawing of sodomy in the military in 1716. As Tsarist Russia continued to westernize, legal and social situations for homosexuals became more difficult to navigate; although as stated earlier, for those with social and economic means in the later part of Tsarist rule living in the “little homosexual worlds” of St. Petersburg and Moscow, life was not as bad as it could be.

In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept in and the Tsarist legal code was destroyed, including, all laws prohibiting sodomy or those who practice sodomy from serving in the military or government. In the first legal code established post-revolution, there were no references to biblical terms like sodomy or fornication, and a much more gender neutral language was used when discussing crimes of sex and sexuality. This linguistic change was seen as a very modern change, and part of a large effort by the Bolsheviks to modernize Russia. Unlike in the 1700s, this attempt at modernization was not centered on the Westernization of Russia, but rather at promoting legal changes the Bolsheviks viewed as modern and communist.

Russians contrasted this new, more tolerant legal code, which allowed no-fault divorce to be filed by the man or woman and allowed consensual casual sex relations, with the persecution of homosexuals by the British, Germany and other western governments. According to glbtq,

Homosexual relations were not explicitly welcomed by the Bolsheviks and raised to an equal status with heterosexuality. Yet they were regarded in principle as no great vice. …[T]he legal persecution of homosexuals found in Britain and Germany was seen as irrational, reactionary, and bourgeois.

This type of thinking reveals that the divide between “Western,” European thought and Russian thought on homosexuality and same-sex sexual encounters that developed in the 1500s and 1600s continued into the early 1900s as well, although this time the Bolsheviks saw themselves on the more modern side of the metaphorical divide.

Throughout the 1920s, homosexual subculture flourished in a variety of other public spheres, like parks and cafes. But despite these homosocial and legal gains, Lenin’s death in 1924 and Stalin’s consolidation of power around 1929 heralded a repeal of much of the modernized sexual laws, in an attempt to bolster the declining Russian birthrate. Abortions, for example, were banned, as was homosexuality in the 1930s, to encourage a larger population to battle to capitalist West and Nazi Germany. There were efforts to round up all homosexual prostitutes and their clients, but despite these efforts, homosexual male sub-culture persisted through the Great Terror and the rest of Stalin’s reign.

After Stalin’s rule ended, a new line of USSR leaders tasked themselves with the de-Stalinization of the USSR. While nearly all of the conservative sexual morality laws, like the ban on abortion, were quickly repealed, the ban on sodomy and same-sex sexual acts stayed in place. The result was that about 1,000 men were imprisoned each year for violating the law through the 80s; but as with before, despite the legal repercussions, gay sub-culture continued to flourish. In fact, as cities expanded, so too did gay male cruising territories.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the transitional period from state socialism to capitalism, the lives and legality of gays and lesbians changed significantly. According to glbtq,

The political evolution from authoritarian one-party rule to a still-unsettled “democracy” has led to some very positive developments for same-sex desiring Russians. After some unpublicized debate inside the Soviet system, and pressure from the Council of Europe after 1991, Boris Yeltsin decriminalized sodomy in 1993.

From 1989, Russian gays and lesbians began to organize support and lobbying groups, often with the financial backing of American and European organizations. These groups had little impact on the eventual decision to decriminalize sodomy, but they did attract wide media attention, publicizing queer issues and demands.

Again, it’s crucial to understand the “Western” European and Russian dichotomy in the political and legal dynamics of same-sex sexual acts. The changes to sodomy laws and the development of Russian LGBT activism during the transitional period would not have happened if it were not for Western financial assistance and political pressure.

The 1990s saw a growth in LGBT collective power and open communication, from major Russian LGBT group Triangle hosting a national conference attended by over 100 people, to a British study finding 20 different LGBT minded organizations in various Russian cities and hundreds of LGBT publications across the country.

But by 2001, every single publication had closed, and every group had fallen apart. Triangle, for example, disbanded in 1997 when European funding ran dry, and gay and lesbian archives had to be moved out of the country due the harassment from police and civic leaders.

2002 politically was a turning point in the national Russia political, religious and social conscious towards more vehement opposition of homosexuality, in particular female homosexuality (which was often blamed for the declining birth rate), due to an attempt by a conservative, pro-government member of the Duma to ban same-sex sexual acts. His proposal failed, yet it sparked immensely popularity from religious leaders and medical doctors, which helped to get homosexuals banned from the military the following year.

In 2006, about 50 activists, many from Western nations, illegally tried to hold the first Gay Pride parade in Moscow, marching to the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, a memorial commemorating the lives lost in WWII. According to the BBC, the march was a “symbolic protest to equate the struggle for gay rights with the struggle against fascism in World War II.” About 20 religious and nationalists anti-gay protesters showed up and began to violently assault the activists. Riot police came primarily to stop the rally and arrested most of the activists involved.

Some of the protesters quoted in this BBC article demonstrate the notion that homosexuality is “other than” Russian, something that the West brought over to them, which in turn heightens its undesireableness. One twenty five year old protester yelled, according to the BBC that “We are Russians. We are Orthodox. These soldiers died so we could live like Russians, not so these [foreigners] could come here and tell us what to do.”

Most years since, there have been attempts to hold gay pride parades, and all have ended in fights and police arrests of many of the LGBT marchers. Many of you have seen the Buzzfeed post showing off pictures from recent Gay Pride parades. What probably fewer of you have seen, but is immensely more telling, is the subsequent article on Buzzfeed that matches each picture with a different homophobic comment made on the original post. Of these homophobic comments, 60% in some way referenced America, Europe or the unspoken “West,” usually saying something along the lines of “get the fuck out of Russia and stop telling us what to do.” In particular, comments 8 and 19 demonstrate feelings of hypocrisy some Russians feel about US imperial, global interventions—that we, the US, can bomb the Middle East largely consequence free, yet raise hell when gays are threatened in formerly communist, antagonistic Russia.

There is a lot of information in this history section that you do not need to remember. But remember this.

The geopolitics of sexuality in Russia and its predecessors over the last half millennium have nearly always been framed within the context of  the West and East divide, however formalized and politicized that divide was at the time. Moreover, for much of the past half millennium, Russians have fallen on the side of the divide that Westerns frowned upon, whether for tacitly tolerating same-sex sexual acts in the 1500s, or for maintaining their criminalization through the late 1900s.

More recently, the modern wave of gay academia, publications, and activism of the 1990s, and later mid-2000s would not have been possible without significant financial and political support and pressure from Western powers. And that help from Western powers, especially having non-Russia marchers present at Pride marches, has further stigmatized both the nascent modern gay activists movement, and LGBT people as a whole in Russia.

Erika Lynn is a white, feminine of center organism and a rising junior taking a year off to relax and read more. She loves to frolic in fields and splash in the ocean, and enjoys a vegetable sandwich more than anything else for lunch. She would love to visit Russia someday, in particular the Altai Republic in Southwestern Siberia.

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6 thoughts on “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression Part 1: Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide

  1. […] russische Gesetzgebung, wie Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger zurecht kritisiert, oftmals bereits deutlich neokoloniale Untertöne. Wenn die Gesetzgeber als „barbarisch“ und „primitiv“ diskutiert werden, dann wird aus der […]

  2. TJ says:

    You are absolutely right!

    We (Westerners) should mind our own business and forget about those stupid Russian LGBTQ people who were dumb enough to be born LGBTQ in Russia (or Uganda, or Iran, or anywhere else where it is perfectly natural to beat or kill away the gay). Thanks for reminding us that out imperialistic, post-Age of Enlightenment, desire to see our brothers and sisters all over the globe, enjoy the evolution and revolutions we (the EVIL, imperialist West) fought for and continue to fight for and let them figure out their own shit.

    Maybe they need a few Matthew Sheppards, Rebecca Wights, Harvey Milks, Julio Riveras, and Brandon Teenas of their own to help them evolve… or not… their choice.

    In the meanwhile we’ll exchange goods and have our athletic festivals and look the other way.

    • gua says:

      I think the REAL point of this aticle was that as much as we can/have to denounce what is going on in Russsia, we can’t decounce it in a shitty, imperialist way.

  3. […] in a series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.” The first part is entitled “Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide,” and the second part is entitled “Boycotting Boycotts of […]

  4. […] This is the second part of a four part series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.” The first part is entitled “Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide.” […]

  5. Connor says:

    Great article! But there’s a typo in the last sentence of the second paragraph. I don’t know much about blog culture, so I hope this sort of comment isn’t considered rude.

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