Gay Love in the Time of Putin

American journalist Joseph Huff-Hannon tells Haaretz why the collection of true love stories he co-edited is a good way to fight homophobia in Russia.

Tomer Michelzon
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From the cover of the book 'Gay Propaganda.'
From the cover of the book 'Gay Propaganda.'Credit: Courtesy
Tomer Michelzon

Despite its success, the Sochi Winter Olympics will be remembered by many people for the law banning “gay propaganda” and the public representation of same-sex relations.

The law and the ensuing attacks on the LGBT community sparked a global protest; many world leaders did their part by not attending the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

American journalist Joseph Huff-Hannon wanted to get in on the action. Huff-Hannon, 32, who works in global civic organizations like Avaaz and has written for The New York Times and The Guardian, got interested in Russia last summer. What began as an idea for a magazine article soon developed into a book he co-edited with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen: “Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.” It’s out in both English and Russian.

In the book, dozens of gays and lesbians have their say; some live in Russia and some have emigrated. Even though the work documents the life of a persecuted minority, it includes amusing and hopeful stories about impossible loves and starting families despite everything.

“When the ‘gay propaganda’ law in Russia made headlines in the summer, it seemed clear that the government’s intention was to get rid of any representation of gays in the media, on television, in literature – basically any visibility in the popular culture. They wanted to make LGBT people disappear from the public eye,” says Huff-Hannon.

“At the time I was in contact with Russian immigrants here in New York who were organizing demonstrations and protests, and I started to think about creative ways to support the movement. I was also moved by some of the stories people shared with me, like how they met their partner in Russia, or how they fell in love, and I thought that this might make for a nice focus – instead of overly focusing on discrimination and the anti-gay laws in the abstract, to collect these very intimate, romantic and often very funny love stories.”

The book also details the close connection between human rights and cultural representation. It shows how destructive a law against gay propaganda can be.

“I don’t think it’s possible for an LGBT community to emerge in any country or society if there’s no place for queer people to tell their stories,” says Huff-Hannon. “A community can’t really exist without cultural representation, without visibility. It’s a basic precursor to fighting for basic civil rights.”

To get personal stories from the Russian community, Huff-Hannon enlisted Gessen, the author of English-language books including “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.” With that work finished, Gessen left Russia with her partner and two children for New York. A St. Petersburg politician had declared that orphans must be protected so they don’t end up in “sick families like Gessen’s.”

Going viral

Work on the “Gay Propaganda,” which includes a foreword by Garry Kasparov, the chess champion turned Putin critic, took only three months; it was published just after the Olympics. The English version came out this month (both in print and as an e-book), while the Russian version has been free online for weeks. So far it has been downloaded more than 10,000 times in Russia.

“It was important for us that not only well-connected people in Moscow read the book, but also a young person from rural Russia who might read it and get a sense that she or he is not alone,” says Huff-Hannon. “Although the book is selling well in English, it’s primarily aimed at the Russian audience ... because for Russian readers this book is banned, it’s against the law.”

Huff-Hannon sees the book as an ongoing project. “Many people think things will only get worse for gay people in Russia; that the government may soon pass a law to take kids away from gay and lesbian parents,” he says. “And it’s quite possible that many more people will become exiles to avoid that. I don’t think the importance of the subject matter will go away anytime soon.”

Still, he notes that media coverage in the West “has been a bit sensationalist at times – that ‘Russia is hell for gays; the country is homophobic and impossible.’”

“But when you read the book you see it’s more complicated than that. You meet couples like Ivan and Aleksandr, who talk about how their parents accept their relationship and congratulated them on their wedding,” says Huff-Hannon.

“I think the book helps break down stereotypes about Russia and shows that it’s not a monolithic society. And that many, though admittedly a minority, of people are open-minded. For me it adds nuance and another layer to what’s happening there.”

Despite the international protests because of the infringement on gay rights, the Sochi Olympics went off without a hitch; major advertisers like McDonald’s were glad to take part. Huff-Hannon notes that the power of protest from abroad is limited.

“The Russian government doesn’t really care if the State Department or Madonna criticize the treatment of the LGBT community. I think the most effective way to address the issue is to not put it in a separate box, but to see it as a broader crisis and crackdown on civil society there,” he says.

“The day after the Olympics, 500 people who demonstrated on behalf of political prisoners in Moscow were arrested. The rights of everyone there are tenuous. It’s important to look at these two things together and not just talk about gay rights as a separate, special right, which in many ways plays into the Kremlin’s hands.”

Joseph Huff-Hannon and Masha Gessen, the editors of 'Gay Propaganda' Credit: Victor G. Jeffreys II

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