Glimpses of Russia—of the Olympics, the crippled construction and the atrocities conflicting the LGBT community—flood Western media. Yet, the physical threat and broader suppression of civil rights all but destroy the right of queer Russians to publicize the happy, romantic or even mundane stories of their lives.
For that reason, Joseph Huff-Hannon and Masha Gessen edited Gay Propaganda, providing a platform for queer Russians to tell their love stories in their own words. Over 10,000 copies of the Russian version have been downloaded already, circumventing tyrannical law and empowering the censored.
“If you are an artist or a filmmaker or writerin Russia, you can’t include any gay people in any of your stories,” says Huff-Hannon. “And so we wanted to defy that and have simple to the point contemporary love stories of people talking about how and where and under what circumstances they met their partner and how they fell in love.”
“We feel strongly that LGBT people have the same rights, not only civil rights but rights to their own stories,” he continues. While the battle for equality in Russia hit close to home for the author, whose boyfriend speaks Russian, censorship directly affected Gessen.
Living in Russia, Gessen, her wife and their children experienced the suppression firsthand. Government and news offical condemned the LGBT community over national broadcast, equating gays to the Antichrist. Fighting back, Gessen also appeared on television and passed out thousands of pink triangles, a symbol that came out the concenration camps of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the violence and laws grew harsher, and the battle was lost. Just months ago, Gessen sold her yellow Mini Cooper and moved her family to New York.
“Her interpretation that I subscribe to is that it’s an easy wedge issue … and a way to whip up populism and divert peoples attention from a lot of other really serious issues --declining economy, lack of civil rights and freedom of speech for everybody, not just LGBT people,” says Huff-Hannon. “To pick on a pretty defeated minority group that most people don’t have a lot of sympathy for anyway is just a tried and true tactic.”
As voices are hushed, tyranny grows stronger.
“The law was literally being used in this thuggish, mafia way by the state,” says Huff-Hannon. Just recently, the Russian Open Games, sporting events for queer athletes, faced disruption and violence. Venues canceled last minute. Bomb threats were called in. A smoke bomb even went off within basketball stadium. Some events carried on, but according to Huff-Hannon, only the government could initiate such advanced scare tactics.
Violence and coercion is also reaching into citizens’ personal lives. Huff-Hannon recounts the troubles of Alexander and Mikhail, whose love story is included within the book. Knowing the two were married, the FSB, a modern interpretation of the KGB, harassed the couple.
“They kept wanting to bribe them, blackmail one of them into working in the embassy of another country, to basically be a spy,” he says. “Then, they kidnapped his partner, basically beat him up, basically threatened him that way.”
In publishing Gay Propaganda, Huff-Hannon hopes to bring nuanced views and stories into the conversation. Love grounds the stories, even if these experiences took place within a oppressive period of time.
“But I think it’s also a moment where there is a community that is forming tighter ties and getting a stronger identity,” said Huff-Hannon. “It could be seen in hindsight – many, many years from now – as the birth of the more robust LGBT rights movement in Russia."
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