In Russia they resist, too

 September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system

None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.

Yesterday there was  a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev —  “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.

This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?

One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:

met-protest-IS-bWe all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first.  Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.

Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves.  That’s wrong.

The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.)  It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying “Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center. © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread  “materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent. 

Family, private property, and a State I don't like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Family, private property, and a State I don’t like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook: 

The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.

The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.

When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.

Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:

Dear Mr. Nutter.

Viacheslav Revin

Viacheslav Revin

As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.

I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.

I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.

I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.

On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.

By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.

Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.


What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.

But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):

alexeyev sochi protest tweetsI don’t know how much good this will do in Russia. But one thing you have to grant Alekseev is that his single-mindedness, and his focus on the bright lights, would serve him very well in America.

Top guns: Last words on Johnny Weir

Don't ask, do sell: Michael Lucas with adoring soldiers, from ad for his tours of gay Israel

Don’t ask, do sell: Michael Lucas and his gay brigade of faithful soldiers, from ad for his tours of Israel

Yesterday morning I got a message from a friend: “Do check Jamie Kirchick’s Twitter feed.” I sighed and hesitated till lunch. This kind of thing never bodes any good; it’s like Pandora’s inner voice saying, Think outside the box. Check I did, though, and there it was: your two favorite gay pundits conjoined in 140 characters, Jamie and Michael Lucas both. JKirchick Stepin Fetchit copyOh, joy. Jamie has a longstanding partiality for Lucas, the porn impresario with a second career as political commentator. Back when the New Republic was right-wing, and Kirchick was Martin Peretz’s last addition to a whole seraglio of protégés, he published a long, admiring article on Lucas there. Lucas was, he said, “a fervent supporter of Israel and a harsh, often offensive, critic of the Muslim world,” not a criticism since Jamie thinks the Muslim world deserves it. (What do you call someone who writes a puff piece for a porn star? A fluffer?) He still thinks of Lucas as one of his favorite, well, propagandists: Kirchick Lucas copy Lucas’s new essay weighs in on the fracas over Johnny Weir: predictably, another attack piece on the hapless skater. I am already losing interest in this business, but really, this one was revelatory. Lucas at last made it all clear.

Russians love Johnny Weir. He’s their kind of gay: Liberace of the ice. He’s the “fabulous” gay, the mascot, the gay who knows his place and stays in it. …  The Russians don’t mind token flamers like Weir; what scares them are everyday people who happen to be gay. They’re scared of homosexuality becoming normal, not staying outrageous like Weir. That’s what the “gay propaganda” law is all about.

You see now. The real problem for Lucas, Kirchick, and the rest isn’t what Weir said. It’s that he’s a fag and a fem and reflects on us badly before the Rooskies. Lucas even heaps the ultimate American insult on him/her. The little nancy weakling didn’t know how to play football — he let the real men bully him in school:

The Russians love Weir, so Weir loves the Russians. He’s like a sad high-school figure: the cheerleader for the same team of jocks that would beat him up if he weren’t also doing their homework for them.

Has anyone told Lucas that bullying fagboys is no longer considered a good thing?

I’ve never much approved of mocking Lucas for being a porn star with Tom Friedman pretensions. Tom Friedman is a Tom Friedman with porn star pretensions; what’s wrong with the other way around? (Just click the link, please.) Porn stars’ opinions are no less valid than those of sex workers, pop singers, or Human Rights Watch directors, each with their own realms of undoubted expertise. Lucas is perfectly free to write op-eds. The problem is, the op in them is a stinking mass of racist tripe. He can’t open his computer without something loathsome crawling out. It’s not just Arabs and Muslims, whom he hates and vilifies at every opportunity. It’s not just his despicable attempt to shut down all discussion of Palestine at the New York LGBT Center, where his partner was a major donor. He goes after every group at one point or another. Black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic,” he told Michael Musto, adding “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” Show the man a need, and he’ll fill it.

License to shill: Porn and propaganda

License to shill: Porn and propaganda

But this latest insult is revelatory because it displays the common ground under Lucas’s various racist obsessions. His contention about Russia is pretty much absurd. Years ago I heard the great trans* activist Stephen Whittle remark that 90% of so-called homophobic violence is really gender-based violence. It isn’t about what you do in bed but what you look like, punishing men who aren’t masculine enough or women who aren’t feminine enough. That this is relevant to Russia is sufficiently proven by the sadistic “Occupy” videos now all over the Web: a bunch of worked-out macho Nazi wannabees abuse and brutalize people invariably presented to the cameras as flaming, weak, effeminate, and pathetic.  Obviously Lucas has never seen these. Or, if he did, maybe he got the wrong message. Spiritually, he’s on the side of the abusers. Buried in Lucas’s op-ed is his  admiration for the bullies, the “team of jocks,” the top guns, the fuckers who dominate the fuckees. (Lucas once boasted to Michael Musto that he’s never ever been a bottom, onscreen or off.) Lucas’ own peculiar brand of nationalism – his homonationalism, his Queer Nationism, his defense of his gay tribe against imaginary black or Muslim or Arab enemies – has a lot in common with Russian nationalism (and many others) as a cult of mastery and conquest. It just has the foes transposed. Even while calling Russia “the putrid country of my birth,” Lucas admires Russian chauvinism at its most murderous. Jamie describes it:

While he originally disagreed with Russia’s brutal policies toward Chechnya, he now believes that America could learn something from Vladimir Putin. “The American Army can’t take Fallujah?“ Lucas asks me, incredulous. “Level it!“

Don't enter. That's Michael's job.

Don’t enter. That’s Michael’s job.

Tied to his gay patriotism is Lucas’s other nationalism. A few years ago, while Lucas was fiercely protecting the Promised Land from a handful of pro-Palestinian activists at the LGBT Center, an Israeli friend wrote me that “The man doesn’t really love Israel because he’s Jewish. He loves it because it’s a country where even the bottoms look like tops.” I doubt this is true of Lucas, but it’s at least partly true of Israel. There, sculpting both by mandatory military service and by an ethos of strength produces a kind of body (personal as well politic) that can take masculinity to new heights. This in turn makes Israel a huge erotic fetish for a lot of people beyond its borders, particularly the gays. Some while back, in a post devoted to Dan Littauer’s fake news site GayMiddleEast.com, I tacked on a still from one of Lucas’s films: Israeli guys striding like impossibly virile Venuses from the half-shell. Every day that post still gets 100 or so hits, from searches for “men of Israel.” It’s like catnip.

Here we go again

Here we go again

Lucas sells that fetish (he offers guided tours of gay Israel starting at $2755), but he also buys into it. It’s not just the bodies that turn him on, it’s the beliefs behind them. The dominant version of masculinity in Israel, writes Oma Sasson-Levy, is “identified with the masculinity of the Jewish combat soldier and is perceived as the emblem of good citizenship.” The militarized version of Israeli manhood seduces because it promises access to power. It’s tailor-made for Lucas’s preoccupations.

As for Kirchick, respectability has been his concern for years. He wants to find presentable gays who will make the tribe look good, and kick out the losers who give a bad image. The latter include traitors like Chelsea Manning, cowards like war opponents or other lefties, freaks like most feminists, and combo platters like me. “The whole purpose of the gay rights movement has been to convince heterosexual Americans that gay people are just like them,” Kirchick insists. What he can’t stand, ever, anywhere, is this: kirchick sex shop copy 2Jamie’s ceaseless demands that we be nice and normal remind me, helplessly, of the most hilarious passage from that great comedy, Finnegans Wake — where the narrator evaluates the respectability of a slew of sordid Dublin lodging-houses:

Fair home overcrowded, tidy but very little furniture, respectable; open hallway pungent of Baltic dishes, bangs kept woman’s head against wall thereby disturbing neighbours, case one of peculiar hopelessness, most respectable; nightsoil has to be removed through snoring household, eccentric naval officer not quite steady enjoys weekly churchwarden and laugh while reading foreign pictorials on clumpstump before door, known as the trap, widow rheumatic, haunted, condemned and execrated, of dubious respectability; reformed philanthropist whenever feasible takes advantage of unfortunates against dilapidating ashpits, serious student is eating his last dinners, floor dangerous for unaccompanied old clergymen, thoroughly respectable; many uncut pious books in evidence, nearest watertap two hundred yards’ run away, fowl and bottled gooseberry frequently on table, man has not had boots off for twelve months, infant being taught to hammer flat piano, outwardly respectable; sometimes hears from titled connection, one foot of dust between banister and cracked wall, wife cleans stools, eminently respectable …

I think the next-to-last one is Jamie. The “pious books” are the giveaway.

Given Kirchick’s passion for respectability, it’s a bit odd he should care so poignantly for Lucas, the porn magnate and former sex worker. One likely reason is the latter’s propensity for calling everybody anti-Semitic, with a sweep only slightly less comprehensive than Jamie’s own. They share the same enemies. Kirchick’s distaste for Muslims brings him to embrace Bruce Bawer, the obsessive, secular Savonarola who helped inspire mass-murderer Anders Breivik. Lucas’s similar loathing leads him straight into the arms of unabashed crank Pamela Geller. (“Gays should join the anti-Islamic movement,” he told her. They haven’t already?)

Kirchick nightmare: Help, I seem to be surrounded by these Arab-like people, and that building behind me looks like some kind of "mosque," and I can't wake up. (Neocon junket to Lebanon, 2009)

Kirchick nightmare: Help, I seem to be surrounded by these Arab-like people, and that building behind me looks like some kind of “mosque,” and I can’t wake up. (Neoconservative junket to Lebanon, 2009)

But more basically, respectability for Kirchick, like power for Lucas, is a matter of being the right kind of man. Strength is part of it; so is soldiering. Most famously, back in the days of Don’t Ask etc., Jamie urged the US military to create a segregated gay brigade, to “put the lie to the charge that gays are effeminate and weak.”

But the most satisfying aspect of this policy would be its effect on our Islamist enemies, who not so long ago were burying gays alive … What humiliation, what shame these barbarians would endure if after every successful terrorist assassination accomplished by the Leonard Matlovich Brigade, U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing that yet another Taliban fighter bit the dust at the hands of warrior homosexuals!

This could easily be a Michael Lucas Production.

Both Lucas and Kirchick lead vivid fantasy lives. Lucas does so by definition: porn is all about fantasy. It’s also all scenarios reiterated, though, and climaxes endlessly redone: in Freudian terms, the melancholy of repetition. Some of this melancholy seems to hang about Michael Lucas, who more and more relies on involuntarily campy excess to emphasize a masculinity that can’t quite prove itself: showing himself surrounded by adoring soldiers like some weird inflatable Mussolini doll. Jamie, meanwhile, dreamed of gay glory but didn’t battle for it; he advertised his imaginary brigade, but never volunteered. Yet as middle age has its way with him – a sad transmutation my own plump features testify to all too well – he’s settling into an eerie resemblance to that historical incarnation of la patrie and l’etat, the last King of France.

The King’s two bodies: They make a pretty pear

After Daumier. The King’s two bodies: Quite a pear

The cult of masculinity is always dreamlike. But it has real consequences. Below the surface it’s built on despising and excluding. And so are the passions and ideologies that draw on it for strength, from frat-boy loyalty to football thuggery to patriotic fervor. There’s hate buried in the foundations, like a time bomb or a sacrificed body. Somebody’s nightmare sustains the dream, somebody has suffer to keep the ideal of manhood going; and in this case you demonize the feminine, the effeminate, the ladyboy or Liberace. They all become traitors to the cause, Stepin Fetchits. 

There’s seems to be a bit of ¿Quién es más macho? in the air around this Russia campaigning. I’m not saying Kirchick and Lucas are typical — thank God, they’re not. But there’s John Aravosis, who launched the nastier attacks on Weir, that “freak of nature.” Redoubtable fellow, but with a rep for not being very friendly to trans* people or the issue of gender. (“What [do] I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”?) There’s Dan Savage, who kickstarted the whole boycott-Stoli thing. He too has voiced some serious discomfort in the past with a man who doesn’t like manhood, who “get[s] his dick cut off” — and he’s been glitterbombed as a result.

I mistrust the point when any of our movements start indulging macho anger as a driving force, a motive influence. I mistrust the moment any of them start using manhood as a criterion for membership, as though questioning the received, repressive value of manhood weren’t (despite all Jamie’s sanctimonious lies) the point of lesbian, and gay, and bisexual, and trans* activism at its best, from the start. I don’t care whether you like Johnny Weir or not — I’m not a figure-skating fan, and frankly I barely knew about him before last week. But you can argue with him without implying he’s a traitor to the meaning of being a man. Michael Lucas is a notorious racist. Now, though, he also shows how he speaks the taunting language of schoolyard bullies, mimics the poses of uniformed abusers. When it comes to imitating the oppressor, that’s more dangerously Stepin Fetchit-like than anything else I’ve heard lately.

Oh, yes, and one more question. Lucas ends his op-ed with this odd comment:

The boycott movement … will not harm athletes or Russian workers, because the boycott movement will almost certainly make little real impact. It is a moral gesture, and a media strategy. Its real point is to keep the Russian LGBT crisis in the news, and to keep people talking about it.

Come again? Sorry, but this wasn’t what they were saying at the outset. “Will almost certainly make little real impact”? What happened to “Boycotts helped end Apartheid, spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and curbed potential atrocities”? What happened to “Boycott Russian vodka until persecution of gays and their allies ends”? What happened to It’s time for us to put our foot down and say we will not be the scapegoat of the world any longer”? And what happened toheroic images of gay bars who are fighting back”? 

Again, I don’t know who Lucas thinks he speaks for. I know there is way more sophisticated thinking than his out there. But it’ll be hard to keep up momentum for a boycott if a really loud celebrity tries to sell it by promising it’s just a macho gesture, and it won’t help. It’s fine, I guess, to acknowledge that the goal all along was to get people’s attention. But what if those people say: OK, you’ve got our attention. Now what are you going to do with it? What’s the plan?