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The Big Gay Russian Surprise of the Winter Olympics

In less than a month, the world will turn its attention to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As the Russian government gets ready for the event, the gay community is preparing in a slightly different way.

In less than a month, the world will turn its attention to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As the Russian government gets ready for the event, the gay community is preparing in a slightly different way.

Putin’s ultimate fuck-you move to the Russian gay community was the recent ban on gay “propaganda,” and in the fight back, the publishing company, OR Books, will release a collection of testimonials, interviews, and stories about being gay and in love in Russia on the eve of the Olympics. Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories provides a glimpse into the ongoing abuse and intolerance, and will bring much needed hope and reassurance to young LGBT people of Russia.


I wanted to know a little more about the book and its timely release, so I spoke with one of the book’s editors, Joseph Huff-Hannon. Joseph is a journalist and an activist who has strong ties to the global LGBT right group, All Out.

VICE: Hi Joseph, thanks for speaking with us. Are you excited for the launch of Gay Propaganda? How long of a process has it been?
Joseph Huff-Hannon: Very excited. Our timeline has been kind of insane. We started the book in October, and we’re publishing it in February just in time for the Sochi Olympics, in both languages, English and Russian. We’ve pulled together some incredibly moving stories, and also some really fun, eclectic, unexpected material—a really nice range.

How did the idea for this book first develop?
I just kind of tripped over it. It started with a casual conversation with a Russian woman I met in New York last fall. We were hanging out at a picnic, and she told me about how she met her wife, a decade ago online. It was this very modern long-distance love story, with online dating, language barriers, a happy ending with the two of them in New York, a young daughter, and a wedding right after the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned.

I found it incredibly romantic, and thought, there are hundreds of thousands of great stories like this from Russian LGBT people in love, or looking for love, in Russia, or from Russians who've been pushed out or left their country because of their sexuality. And the Russian government had just declared this all illegal “propaganda.” So I thought, let’s find some of the best ones and put them in a book.


Things moved pretty quickly from there. I pitched OR Books, which is really good at fast turnaround publishing, then reached out to Russian journalist Masha Gessen, my fantastic co-editor on the project. She’s also gay, and had written a piece for The Guardian in June about the choice to move her entire family, partner, and three kids, to the US to escape the anti-gay laws. Despite her very crazy schedule, she heroically agreed to take it on with me, and we didn’t waste much time. Masha organized interviews with gay and lesbian Russians in Russia, and I chased after LGBT Russians abroad, a fast-growing category thanks to the deteriorating situation back home.

While gathering stories and material, what sort of obstacles did you and the book’s storytellers have to overcome?
Time was a major obstacle; we had very little of it. Also Masha and some of the journalists she was working with had a hard time convincing people or couples living in smaller cities, outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, to open themselves up and share these stories publicly; because of very legitimate fears of being ostracized, fired, attacked or otherwise penalized by the government or the police. I didn’t find it as difficult to convince gay and lesbian Russians living abroad to speak with me, as many these folks don’t feel like they have much left to lose. Many of them are seeking asylum and hope not to return.


How do you hope to distribute the book, both throughout Russia and abroad?
Outside of Russia people can find the book through the normal channels, the publisher will sell it, you can buy it on Amazon etc. In Russia we’re not under any illusion that it will be sold in bookstores. It is a deliberate provocation after all, and by definition likely considered illegal under Russian law if it’s read, seen, or discussed within earshot or in the vicinity of a minor.

But the intention is definitely to get the book into the hands of a Russian audience who it’s primarily intended for—a huge community of LGBT people (Russia is a country of 140 million), along with friends and allies and thinking people in Russia who don’t want their government telling them what to read or not to read, and who may appreciate these very lovely, very human, and often very hilarious, true love stories. In a society where the government has made positive or sympathetic portrayals of LGBT life illegal, I think voices like this could be a lifeline for some queer Russians, and a culture jam to at least begin to combat all the anti-gay venom being spewed by the major media in Russia.

As to how we’ll do that, by the end of this month the Russian e-book will be available for anybody as a free download, and we’ll be publicizing that in the Russian blogosphere and in the media. Right now we’re also trying to fund raise for a special Russian printing of the book, so we can send them to Russian LGBT groups for free, and they can circulate them “samizdat” style, amongst friends and acquaintances. And we’ll be looking for people traveling to Sochi—spectators, athletes, journalists, to take copies with them and help get them circulating.


Using literature to combat oppression isn't new, but how do you think e-books will fare for this purpose? People aren’t exactly advertising what they’re reading when using e-readers…
I think the subject matter lends itself well to reading this on an e-book or a tablet, for readers in Russia. The situation right now really is pretty scary. I just heard about a friend of a friend, a straight guy, who was beat up by thugs in Moscow who shouted anti-gay epithets at him. Apparently he was dressed too stylish. So reading the book in a way that doesn’t advertise the content could make it easier and more accessible for some people, young people in particular. That said printed books are still the easiest to share and pass around, so we’re also talking now about a special Russian edition with a more innocuous title and cover image that doesn’t immediately broadcast that this is a book of gay and lesbian love stories. In that way I do think this project lives in a very cool dissident Russian tradition of samizdat, of printing and circulating banned books.

For a movement such as this to prompt change, what do you think needs to happen in Russia and elsewhere?
That’s a big question. I think one of the reasons this law came about in the first place was in reaction to the powerful role that culture has played in the west in softening attitudes toward gays and lesbians. I think reactionaries around the world, in the US as well, have taken note of how literature, TV, theater and film have helped normalize the idea for the mainstream that yes, LGBT people exist, they’re mostly just like you and me, and you probably have at least one in the family. These cultural shifts have gone hand in hand with political and legal campaigning to win equal rights.

So I do think it’s a shrewd move on the part of conservatives to try to shut down that cultural space where stories and portrayals and reporting can change hearts and minds. And in a place like Russia where the major media are so thoroughly in bed with the government, it’s much easier to do that. But I also think it can create a backlash, and who knows, we may see that happen in Russia, though it may not happen until Putin’s rule has run its course.

Is the Olympic committee going against its own policies by allowing Russia to host the winter games?
I think there’s been some really creative organizing and campaigning by groups like All Out and Athlete Ally around the Olympic committee in particular. They teamed up with American Apparel on a whole new clothing line called P6, which stands for Principle 6 of the Olympic charter, the clause that calls out discrimination. They have athletes and others who are going to wear that all over the place in Sochi, which I think is pretty cool. At this point I think there’s been so much drama kicked up around this issue and the Olympics that it will undoubtedly figure into how the IOC chooses to select host cities in the future, and that’s a win. I also think one of the hilariously unintended consequences of it all is that Sochi will likely be seen as the gayest Olympics ever, that LGBT rights and representation has become such a central part of the story, and is going to be a major part of the coverage. It’s probably not what Putin intended when he vied for the Games.

It was recently reported that Nigeria passed a law banning same-sex activity, punishable by imprisonment. With Russia setting an example of intolerance, are more countries likely to follow suit?
There is definitely something happening right now, a backlash. Dozens of gay men were actually just arrested in Nigeria following the passage of that law. The Ugandan parliament just passed their draconian anti-gay law (though the president has yet to sign it). The Indian Supreme Court recently overruled a lower court ruling, and re-criminalized gay sex, in the biggest democracy on the planet. So there is definitely a sense somehow that the pendulum is swinging backward in some places. I think there are a lot of forces at play, but international LGBT rights have also never had the profile they do today, so clearly the battle is ongoing.