Q&A with Jeff Sharlet: Russia's anti-gay legislation

by Elizabeth Smith | 2/13/14 7:48pm

In light of the Sochi Olympic Games, the global media has refocused on Russia’s 2013 anti-gay legislation. The law, which bans the promotion — such as public hand-holding — of “non-traditional sexual relations” in the presence of minors. This week, The Dartmouth sat down with English professor Jeff Sharlet to talk about his 15-day trip to Russia in November, reporting for GQ Magazine on LGBTQ life under the legislation. Sharlet’s piece, “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia,” appeared in the magazine’s February issue.

What was the most difficult thing about reporting this story?

JS: The steady accumulation of suffering. When you do this, you talk to far more people than you can include in the story. I was there for two weeks, and I slept maybe four hours a night. I spent my days talking to ordinary people and also activists, and at nights I would go out to the queer nightlife in Saint Petersburg and Moscow and talk to people there. In the day, it would be one kind of story of horror, and at night, another. And that was the most difficult part, that accumulation of such sorrow.

You mentioned that there are a lot of violent attacks against the LGBTQ community, and also killings. Are these attacks reported at all in the Russian media?

JS: Not much. The most violent are — I mentioned the killing of a young man in Volgograd who came out to his friends. They celebrated by raping him with beer bottles, crashing his head in with a stone and then arranging his stripped body for display. That was so horrific that it became a national story, and the police did try. The kinds of ordinary beatings are not addressed.

Has the government crackdown noticeably deterred the voice of Russia’s LGBTQ community?

JS: In Moscow, they passed a law banning pride parades for 100 years. So apparently there’s going to be a great sexual liberation in Russia in 2112. But the pride parades are not what we think of. They last maybe two minutes. You go there, take out your rainbow flags, get beaten and then get arrested for being beaten. Everywhere, people are planning on leaving, and that’s going to be the long-term impact of this law. It’s going to make it even more painful and difficult for those without resources to leave.

From your experience, if a Russian individual is known, or thought to be gay, how is he or she treated by coworkers, neighbors and others?

JS: There are people who are out in their work place, in the elite circles. If you’re working for a fashion designer, or at the vegan café, you’re in certain media circles where it’s less of an issue. If you’re a teacher? Forget it. You will be fired. That is the law. You’ll be shunned and fired. This other weird thing as well: if you walk along the streets, you see people who are obviously out, and Russians don’t see that. This is where we get things like the mayor of Sochi saying, “There are no gay people in Sochi,” despite there being a prominent gay club. It’s that level of “Let’s close our eyes.”

When you were reporting this, was there a moment that scared you the most?

JS: Yeah, when a Cossack pulls a gun on you, that’s pretty frightening.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 14, 2014

The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that the Russian law was also known as the "Kill the Gays" bill. This, in fact, refers to anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The piece has been revised to reflect this error.

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