How Gay Is Russia?

by Chris Bodenner

Berlin, East Side Gallery

A reader writes:

I’d like to comment on the “controversial” lip-kiss shared between two Russian athletes earlier in the week. It’s important to remember that other cultures have not eroticized same-sex kisses as Americans have. Here is a link about the history/culture of Russian lip-locking. And of course we can’t forget the iconic (fraternal) kiss of Eastern Bloc history, seen here [and a graffiti reproduction seen above].

We’re dealing with societies that, while deeply homophobic, still have a deep sense of same-sex friendship. I studied abroad in Moscow and Greece – both conservative Orthodox Christian countries – and was shocked to have a good Russian guy-friend, my age, put his head on my shoulder to take a nap during a long train ride. In Greece, men will drape their arms over each other in public and display physical affection that, unfortunately, will never fly among heterosexual men in this country and in much of the West. As the American media eroticizes this behavior, we run the risk of unintentionally unleashing a homophobia on same-sex (especially male) friendship that we in America experienced in the mid-20th century.

Another reader shares his first-hand perspective on Russian culture and homophobia:

As a gay man who lived in Moscow for 18 years (1989-2007), I consider myself and my dear Russian gay friends and lovers to be rather quite a bit more knowledgeable on the subject of gay life in that country than the usual parade of Cold War-trained “experts.”  I was there last September, and I’m in constant contact with a broad circle of Russian gay friends on Facebook. I would venture to say Russia has been in many ways less homophobic than the US, until very recently.  Russia has become suddenly more closed, and the US has become almost as suddenly more open.

People were absolutely fine with you being gay in Russia, with one big caveat:

like so many other things in Soviet society, you were not to speak of it. I lived with one of my lovers six blocks from the home he grew up in, we slept in one bed that his family helped us set up, and I was a constant guest at their city and country homes for any occasion, large or small.  But no one spoke of the nature of our relationship, keeping up the appearance that we were “just good friends.” He came out after we broke up, and their family is still as close as ever.  No religiously-motivated banishments, no condemnations, only a bit of mourning over the grandchild-not-to-be.  With other lovers we were out from the start, and I was treated with respect and usually with affection.

The current rise in homophobia is completely artificial, as evidenced by the unanimous vote in parliament, which included the gay clique in the clownish right-wing Liberal Democratic party, headed by the notorious bisexual Zhirinovsky (who was a habitué of some of the wildest Moscow sex clubs in the ’90s and whom I have personally seen make speeches about tolerance in a gay bar two blocks from my home there), and his deputy, the closeted gay (and up to now high profile gay-rights supporter) Mitrofanov.

The current campaign is part of intimidating the young professional class that began to rebel last year, and gays were very active participants in that movement. The rise of a money-driven brand of Orthodoxy has also fueled the fire, but it is a ridiculous farce.  It is being marketed to the broader public not as anti-gay, but as anti-pedophile, and while many are fooled for the time being, it is not the sort of thing that will hold up over the long term. Russians generally have a very healthy, sometimes even extreme mistrust of their government, and Putin’s chickens will come home to roost sooner rather than later.  Most Russian (and Russian gays) probably just say “just be quiet and everything will be OK,” which is exactly what Putin wants.

Moscow’s enormous gay bars and numerous others throughout the country are still partying all night long, the elaborate bath houses are still open 24/7. This campaign has more to do with crushing any issue-politics groups and providing an “us” vs. “them” cover for Putin’s dysfunctional structure and failings than it is about a national homophobic bias.

Previous Dish on gay-ish campy culture in Russia here. Update from a reader who sees things getting better in the US:

I’d like to provide an anecdotal rebuttal to this comment: “In Greece, men will drape their arms over each other in public and display physical affection that, unfortunately, will never fly among heterosexual men in this country and in much of the West.” It might please this reader to know that I do not believe that male/male affectionate behavior shall “never fly among heterosexual men in” the US.

My 19-year-old son played soccer for many years, and most of it on a “premier” travel team. One of the most interesting and amazing aspects of this all-male team’s group behavior was their: a) totally comfort with the concept of homosexuality; b) their often pretending to be in some way homosexual towards one another – and I’m not talking in an ugly and minimizing way but instead in a fun and I would dare say team-bonding manner; c) their complete immodesty with each other; and finally and most importantly to this discussion, d) their very affectionate behavior towards and among themselves. They would sit on each other’s laps, often drape arms around the guy next to them during relaxation periods; sit and lay very close to one another without any concern for appearances; lay around in beds together during team trips and generally have incredibly affectionate behaviors towards their team-mates.

These behaviors – and their apparent total lack of concern in terms of appearing gay – was often a topic of discussion amongst their Gen X (or older) parents. We all recognized that something has irrevocably changed in our sons’ generation.