There Are No Gays in Russia, and This Won’t Affect the Olympics Anyway

February 06, 2014 / by / 21 Comments

Observations on Russian homophobia from my time abroad.

It was 85 degrees Fahrenheit when I sat down to mid-afternoon tea with my host mother one sunny day in August. The weather had become unusually warm again, just as my host family was assuring me that I could expect chilly mornings and daily rainstorms. On such a hot day I typically preferred cool drinks, maybe kompot or mors, but tea time was more about the company than the beverage. After all, I had only a few days left to get the most out of life in Russia.

I sat patiently at the kitchen table, nibbling on a cookie while I waited for my tea to cool. My host mother had no trouble gulping hers down. How she and her fellow Russians managed to coolly drink boiling tea, let alone on a hot summer day, remains a mystery to me.

Our conversations often took a predictable course: My host mother would ask me a question, I would answer as best I could, and then she would go on about the topic for a few more minutes before asking me whether I had understood. I always said yes, of course, and usually I did understand. Sometimes, though, she would check my comprehension by asking me to summarize what she had said, a test that I had failed more than once.

On this August day, however, our conversation took an unusual turn. My host mother, in her typical warm, sunny tone, asked me whether I enjoyed the music of Tchaikovsky. I said that I did, very much. She then said that she had heard an expert on the radio say that Tchaikovsky was likely homosexual, which had surprised her. Knowing this was a somewhat delicate subject, I responded only that I had also heard something along the same lines. At this point, a pang of despair welled up inside me. I prepared myself for the worst. Instead, my host mother surprised me. “Oh well,” my host mother said. “It doesn’t matter whom he loved, he was a great musician.” Relief immediately replaced my apprehension.

I cannot say for certain that those were my host mother’s exact words. I’ve already confessed that I’m no master of the Russian language, and several months have passed since we had this conversation. What I can say, however, is that my host mother’s opinion of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality is in the stark minority amongst Russians.

I had heard enough gay-bashing in Russia to know that even a woman as wonderful and loving as my host mother could be vehemently opposed to gay rights. Thankfully, she was not. But Russia is one of the most vociferously anti-gay countries in the world, and the issue of gay rights in Russia has become the subject of an international debate: A number of gay bars in Europe and the United States have stopped serving Russian vodka; the United States Olympic delegation to Sochi featured homosexual representatives but no high-ranking members of the Obama administration; and online petitions to boycott the Games have gathered thousands of signatures.

The international pressure seems to be getting to Russia, at least a little bit: Russian President Vladimir Putin recently clarified that no Olympians or spectators would be arrested for their private sexuality, even as he implored them, “Leave the children alone.”

President Putin’s conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia is hardly surprising, given that anti-gay sentiment in Russia, and the policies representing it, groups together all non-traditional, non-heterosexual activities. The Russian law that has drawn the world’s ire bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” though the language of the law is so broad that it could be used to target any public display of homosexuality.

As the Sochi Olympics approach, one might wonder whether international support for gay rights could start a debate within Russia about homosexuality and perhaps even challenge this anti-gay propaganda law. Might Russian politicians and the public begin to question their attitudes towards gays, given all this international pressure? The short answer, for me, is no. The long answer requires a closer understanding of Russian attitudes towards homosexuals.