As the 2014 Sochi Olympics get underway, the biggest story is not any particular event. No perfect triple-axel or record-setting bobsled time will overshadow that which will define this Olympics in history as surely as John Carlos’s and Tommie Smith’s raised fists at the 1968 games in Mexico City.
Russia’s clownish anti-gay laws have sparked intimidation and violence against the country’s LGBT community and have put state-sanctioned homophobia in the global spotlight. But author and activist Joseph Huff-Hannon set out to write a book about the flip side of this story—true tales of gay and lesbian Russians at home and within the diaspora—and in an oral history reminiscent of Studs Terkel, Huff-Hannon and his co-editor, Masha Gessen (herself an out journalist who recently fled Russia and wrote about it for The Guardian last year), chronicle individual tales of this community. These are ordinary people living their lives as best they know how in unexpected and frightening circumstances.
Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories is absolutely illegal under the new Russian law, but it stands as a testament to the idea that the best defense against bigotry and narrow-mindedness is a good offense: take some humanity and shove it in your face. Huff-Hannon and Gessen hope to circulate the Russian-language version of the book within the country’s borders, and I recently spoke with Huff-Hannon about how he hopes this book can contribute to the resistance against Russia’s heightened homophobia.
The Rumpus: In the opening, Masha compares the book to a samizdat project. For a readership that might have partially grown up after the Soviet Union dissolved, explain what she means by that, because I found it very powerful.
Joseph Huff-Hannon: Masha describes it as being a part of this legacy that comes out of literature that was banned in the Soviet Union. People took it upon themselves to print DIY books, so books would be either written by dissidents within the Soviet Union or without. They were basically books that weren’t supposed to exist. They were circulated friend-to-friend, colleague-to-colleague. This was a way to tie together a community of dissidents.
In terms of modern-day Russia, there’s a category of cultural expression that has been banned, and that category contains everything that has to do with LGBT people that’s not disparaging. For instance, you can make a TV show or write a book that paints gays and lesbians as evil. That’s actually legal because there are statutes under the law that describe how you can talk about LGBT people.
There’s a limit to how this book will reach Russians. Bookstores are not going to pick it up. We’ve already heard from journalists and journals who are saying, “This is interesting, but we can’t write a review or cover it because we might end up in court.” The way we suspect this book will get circulated is through word of mouth, through friends, through networks of liberals, human rights groups, and LGBT people and their friends and family.
Rumpus: Are you planning to send copies over there?
Huff-Hannon: That’s the plan. The first stage, right when the book publishes, is that it has the free e-book for any reader and the free PDF of the Russian manuscript. We’re going to get that circulating on blogs and social media, and there’s a longer plan to get print books and get them into Russia. A big part of the population in Russia is basically getting disappeared by the media right now.
Rumpus: One thing that came across while I was reading was the unabashed humanness of the people struggling with the very average, terrifying, heart-sickening prospect of loving another person who’s autonomous and prone to screwing up and stupidity and avarice and lust and all the other human flaws. If you removed the controversial element from these stories, you’d still have a compelling set of interviews based solely on how difficult it is to enter into that complicated, sticky emotion of love.
Huff-Hannon: That’s why we chose that as a frame, because it’s a very universal story. I think a lot more people can relate to that, than they can relate to getting pounded and beat up by neo-Nazis at a protest.
Rumpus: There are many stories of people falling in love or getting together online. How has the web changed how the gay community interacts in Russia? Has it made it easier to find other LGBT people? To organize?
Huff-Hannon: I think it has in Russia as much as it has everywhere. One interesting thing widely reported on in the last year is the folks trying to push gay people back into the closet in Russia are very savvy about how they use the Internet, entrapping people and releasing awful, embarrassing videos online, and outing people in these awful ways.  It goes back to your point about universality, about finding that one person. You used to have to go on a million dates, and now you can do that online and that’s a universal story, not just a Russian story. It’s also interesting how the communities of activists in Russia and in the diaspora—this fast-growing, loud group of queer Russians that are popping up all over the world—they’re talking. There’s a lot of back and forth between them and people still in Russia, using forums for protest and activism. How that community is fighting back.
Rumpus: Is the Internet then a total double-edged sword? Creating opportunities to meet and organize but also for bigoted people and politicians to take advantage?
Huff-Hannon: I can give you very blatant examples. People might come to a moment in their life when they’re like, “Fuck it.” And they say something online, and they let it out of the bag, and now they’re in the U.S. because they went through [coming out], and it wasn’t long before they lost a job or they were attacked or faced other kinds of ostracism. But they also use the web as a forum to say, “You know what? Now I’m going to post pictures of my wedding on Facebook.” There’s something powerful about the web as a space for assessing the temperature for where there’s a consensus.
You can look at the U.S. in a similar way. Five, six, seven years ago people would’ve been going out on a limb to say on their Facebook page that they support gay marriage, to a place where it’s a cool and acceptable and mainstream thing to do to post a picture of yourself with a pro-gay marriage sign. These are conversations in Russia that are in many ways happening for the first time.
Rumpus: I could not help but notice the number of references to American pop culture. Several people mentioned hearing Madonna call herself bisexual and how that led them to feel okay about themselves. As absurd and empty and vapid as pop culture sometimes feels, did Joe Biden sort of hit on something? Does Will and Grace matter?
Huff-Hannon: I subscribe to the belief that it totally does. People are looking for representations of themselves, and if that exists nowhere in their own pop culture, and the only representations are these horrible, craven people… Pop culture is global. People watch Glee all over the world. There is something powerful once these characters come alive, even if they’re Americans on American shows. That’s the thing about culture and pop culture: it’s global now. And American pop culture can claim a lot of credit for providing people with a little bit of hope that somewhere out there, there are many societies that think, I’m fine the way I am.
Rumpus: One woman, Ksenia, calls Russia Motherland an “abusive bitch.” Her generation saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and great economic turmoil, but with Putin, do Russians now see glasnost reversing itself? Moving back to a much more rigid and oppressive state of affairs?
Huff-Hannon: This is the kind of question Masha is more qualified to answer, but in general, people see this latest push on not just LGBT people, but human rights activists, journalists, and anybody who is broadly brushed as a potential subversive. Nefarious CIA agents from the West trying to destroy Russia. Those narratives have been around, but it’s only in the last two years that the Kremlin decided to whip this up all day, everyday in the state media and pass these laws.
Rumpus: Elena talks about how back in the ‘90s when she was an activist, the situation didn’t seem nearly as bad. What’s happened with Russian homophobia in the last few years? Is it being used as a political prop?
Huff-Hannon: The megaphone of the very consolidated media in Russia—it’s not all state-owned but it takes its marching orders from on high—it’s responding to a threat. Two years ago civil society woke up, there were larger demonstrations in Russia than they’d had in two decades just before the election. The power structure freaked out and said, “We can’t let this happen again. We have to clamp down.” That’s when they went after civil society and passed all these laws. They framed LGBT people as the ultimate evil. They decided they make for a convenient and easy enemy.
I had a friend in Moscow who was telling me how a few years ago, you could go to a gay bar there—now maybe you weren’t out to your family, but things were generally inching along. Then boom! Suddenly the state declared war on gay people and began blaming them for everything. 
Rumpus: One interviewee mentioned a sign he saw at a protest that said “Homophobia Unties the Hands of Murderers.” Russian homophobia has a hyper-aggressive element to it. This isn’t Rick Santorum calling gay sex “bestiality.”
Huff-Hannon: It’s interesting to back up and put it in context that in the U.S. there are also a number of gay crimes and still a number of murders. There are widespread prejudices in many societies that give cover for these crimes. There are still murders of gay people right here in New York.
But you’re right, when you have the state media feeding people an unending diet of [homophobic content]—on talk shows, high government officials saying we need to burn their hearts to make sure they don’t end up as organ donors , that accumulates. And people feel impunity to beat people up or put videos online, and know they’ll never be held accountable. It’s a toxic combination.
Rumpus: How did you begin this project, and why did you decide to do it?
Huff-Hannon: I began thinking about this book when I was hanging out with a group of Russian activists in New York. I have a background in LGBT rights, and I saw that there was this little community of Russian LGBT activists, and I was thinking maybe I’d write a magazine story or something. Then I met a woman from this group, we got to talking, and she told me her story. She’d never been with other Russian activists, but she said she’d just gotten married to the love of her life, and she wanted to fight for the rights of people back in Russia.
To back up a bit, I didn’t want to repeat the same old story, which is: “Oh my god, Russians are getting hit over the head! It’s bad! Repression, repression, repression.” I just wanted to know, how did she meet her wife? What’s she like? What was it like when she first visited you in Moscow? It was just a really striking story, and I thought, Wow, someone needs to write that down. She wrote a really long piece that I edited. From there I was like, let’s make a book of these stories, and this was about five months before the Olympics. I reached out to Masha through a family contact, we went back and forth a bit, solidified the idea, and got cooking. She was organizing interviews in Russia, and I was interviewing the diaspora, most of whom had no intention of ever going back.
We agreed early that this book had to be both in English and in Russia. This was not stories of Russian gay people for just an English readership. It was really important to do it in Russian, as well. The point is to get it as far and wide to a Russian readership as possible.
Rumpus: There were rumblings, rumors, spitballed notions of organizing to demand a total boycott of the Olympics. Are you glad the U.S. is attending the games? What do you think of Obama’s decision to send a delegation with LGBT members, rather than going, as sort of a winking protest?
Huff-Hannon: There’s a lot of moving parts. It was really thoughtful and constructive what the Obama administration did. Not only that, it urged someone to come out publicly. Brian Boitano said, “Okay it’s time for me to come out now.” There were these interesting side effects.
Stepping back for a minute and looking at it less as a Russia-specific thing—as a dynamic, massive global event with all these multi-billion dollar sponsors—and it turns out in this moment in history, the biggest issue being kicked up around it is the treatment of LGBT people. That says more about what’s going on in the world more broadly and where this issue is, because I don’t think we’re in the same place we were four years ago. If Beijing had passed a law saying all the gays need to go back in the closet before the Olympics, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have had the same atmospherics, President Obama sending the delegation, or all the LGBT groups making it their major issue. It’s this moment in time when it’s seen as a major human rights issue. It’s advancing in some parts of the world very fast, and there are places where it’s going backwards. The hope and the concern is that this spotlight and all the discussion and scrutiny will not fade away after the Olympics. Not just with what’s happening in Russia, but what’s happening in Uganda, Nigeria, and India. 
Institutionally, it’s going to change how these big mega-events are run. I don’t think [the] IOC or FIFA will ever again look at a host city without thinking, Oh shit, we better do research on what’s happening with LGBT rights there because we can’t have another Sochi. I think that’s a big deal and a precedent. Regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, that’s going to be part of the conversation.
Rumpus: Do Russians need to come out of the closet and start a virtuous cycle? There’s this idea that being out is the most important kind of political statement because it forces the people who love you to choose sides. To either accept you and join the fight or retreat into their own prejudice and live with that shame.
Huff-Hannon: Yeah, inevitably in any society, on this particular issue, that’s what has to happen. And I think it is happening. People are coming out. Obviously, part of this legal attack is to push people back into the closet. In some ways, though, it’s pushing a lot of people out of the closet and turning people who wouldn’t have been activists into activists, forcing the hand of not just gay and lesbian people, but their friends and family. Am I going to stick up for my brother, my father, my son, my daughter, my sister? You can’t really have a society that’s going to respect LGBT people if the dominant paradigm is, Oh, those people don’t exist. Or says they’re products of Hollywood. This might be a moment where that’s starting to happen.
But it’s unpredictable how it will ripple through the culture in Russia and how long the government will have hegemony over media and the control they have now. We’ll see what happens with these Olympics. They’re already starting to be a little bit of an embarrassment. You never know. One dynamic can shift and it can lead the whole thing in a different direction.
 As an example, take frightening, anti-gay Russian vigilante groups like the so-called “Occupy Pedophilia.” Not only do these groups harass, beat, torment, and torture LGBT activists and regular citizens, but they tend to film it and post the videos on YouTube with total impunity.
 It’s quite remarkable how much this strategy borrows from the American playbook: in his recent piece for GQ, “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to be Gay in Putin’s Russia,” journalist Jeff Sharlet notes how much of the “research” used to justify Russia’s anti-gay laws comes from “the curdled theories of the American right,” including right-wing Christian institutions like the Family Research Council.
 This came from Russian TV host Dmitriy Kiselyov.
 Uganda became infamous in 2013 for its anti-gay bill that demands life in prison for anyone convicted of homosexual acts, and the film God Loves Uganda documents the influence of the American right in stirring that up. Nigeria also recently passed a law that will put people in prison for fourteen years if convicted of homosexuality, and India’s supreme court recently upheld a draconian anti-gay law dating back to the colonial era.
Photograph of Russian protestors © by Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty.
Photograph of Masha Gessen © by Svenya Generalova.