The ‘Enemy Within’
A gay Russian writer talks with PEN International’s Cathal Sheerin about homophobia and libel under Putin for the Huffington Post.
In times of crisis, Russia hunts for the enemy within; that’s what Sergey Khazov tells me when I ask him why there is so much anti-gay sentiment in his country.
“The recession started about a year and a half ago,” says Khazov, “and in Russia, when we feel something bad is happening, we begin to search for enemies. First, the anti-American rhetoric got harsher, then relations with the USA got worse, and then we started looking for internal enemies: homosexuals were the first group to be targeted.”
Khazov is a gay Russian writer. He works as a journalist for the opposition magazine The New Times. In recent months, I’ve asked a number of Russian journalists why they think Russia’s lawmakers passed the 2013 anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law which prohibits the ‘promotion’ of ‘non-traditional’ relationships.
Like many of the journalists to whom I’ve spoken, Khazov points to President Putin’s desire to strengthen his support amongst conservative-minded voters, many of whom live outside the major cities.
“That’s where the law was first introduced,” he says, half-laughing, “by some bizarre, Orthodox freak seeking attention. I actually met one of those types once in St Petersburg. He was disgraceful – he genuinely believed in what he was saying. He said that he wanted to protect children from these ‘terrible homosexuals’ who were ‘going to sleep with them,’ and ‘make homosexuals out of every kid in Russia.'”
Outside the cities, Russia is a very conservative country. A recent independent survey found that 43% of Russians believed that homosexuality was a ‘bad habit’ and that 35% believed it was an ‘illness.’ I ask Khazov if these prejudices affect his work.
“As a journalist working in Moscow,” he says, “I don’t see many problems. However, there’s a big difference between the cities and what goes on in the provincial towns. I’m very lucky to write for one of the few newspapers in which you can write about LGBT issues. Others might find it more difficult to find a place to write.
“As for being a writer, that’s different. In the 90s, when I was a teenager, you had books on LGBT themes that came from abroad – it was a good period. But around the year 2000, politics and economics took over. Big publishing houses realised that 1) they might have problems with the government if they published gay books, and 2) that they might not sell enough books to make a profit.”
Khazov has personal experience of this publishers’ reticence. His autobiographical novel, A Different Childhood, in which he writes about the life of a gay teenager in Russia, was shortlisted for the Russian Prize (an annual award for international literature written in Russian) but rejected by Russian publishers:
“I finished my novel two years ago. I was living in Paris with my husband (Sergey’s husband is French) and sent it to lots of publishing houses in Moscow and St Petersburg. In their replies, they told me that my book was very interesting, but that it didn’t fit with the policies of their publishing houses, and so they couldn’t publish it. This is a problem for LGBT writers in Russia – you can publish what you like on the internet, but to get it published as a book is a different matter.”
I say that the new anti-gay propaganda law must also have made gay writers and journalists more cautious. (The Russian media watchdog has already investigated one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for allegedly promoting homosexuality.)
“In terms of being a journalist,” says Khazov, “it hasn’t had much of an effect yet because no-one has been tried or fined under this new law. But from a wider LBGT perspective, it’s had a big effect. Before, LGBT issues weren’t really discussed. Now, people in big cities like Moscow have started to ask themselves: ‘What is gay?’They’ve started to look for information; they’ve started to form opinions: it’s become an ‘issue’. During the Moscow mayoral elections, for example, an Orthodox activist asked (opposition candidate) Alexei Navalny if he would allow gay pride marches in the city. While Navalny was formulating an answer, these old Muscovites were saying to the activist: ‘I don’t care if there’s a gay pride march in Moscow – I don’t want to stop them.'”
But that is in the city, I say. “Yes,” says Khazov. “There’s a far higher level of hatred towards gays in the regions, especially in the provincial towns. And it’s much higher than before: that’s the main negative influence of this anti-gay law.”
There is a lot of evidence that the anti-gay propaganda law is actually emboldening gay-bashers, and making public expressions of homophobia more acceptable. In December 2013, Putin appointed the notorious homophobe, Dmitry Kiselev, to head the giant, new Russian news agency, Russia Today (not to be confused with the TV channel). Kiselev has publicly stated that gay men’s organs should be burned on their deaths so that they can’t be used in transplant operations. What does Khazov think about the role of the Russian media in all of this?
“The main purpose of the Russian media is propaganda,” says Khazov. “Before, the subject wasn’t discussed – nobody was interested. It used to be that 80% of TV was dedicated to Putin or Prime Minister Medvedev and that 20% was dedicated to anti-terrorism. But this is now being discussed on most of our TV channels. It’s disastrous – they say gays sleep with kids; they talk about the ‘terrible West’ where gays marry in churches and do other, awful stuff.”
These views are similar to those espoused by the mother of the central character in Khazov’s novel: when she discovers that her son is gay, she berates him for not being ‘normal’ and demands that he undergoes a sex-change operation if he wants to sleep with men. I ask Khazov how autobiographical that scene is.
“Exactly as you’ve read it,” he laughs. “I actually just did an article about gay teenagers in Russia. Their parents were shocked when they came out, but they got used to it. However, a few kids had exactly the same experience that I had. Their parents – who were ignorant – and who had only seen those horrible programmes on TV said: ‘Let’s have an operation, let’s do hormone therapy.’ It still happens.”
Has Khazov ever been attacked for being gay? He laughs again: “Twice in France, once in Australia, but not in Russia. However, I don’t do anything provocative here – for example, I don’t kiss my husband in the street. If I did, maybe I’d have some problems. But in the street nobody knows I’m gay.”
PEN International recently launched Out in the Cold, its Sochi Olympics campaign, which protests three recently-passed pieces of legislation that restrict free speech in Russia. These laws include criminal defamation, the ‘blasphemy’ law, and the anti-gay propaganda law. I ask Khazov if the work of organisations like PEN actually has any positive effect in Russia.
“All this noise you guys have been making since the anti-gay law was signed,” says Khazov, “is doing its job.” He points to a bill introduced in the Russian Parliament in September 2013 by a member of Putin’s ruling party. This draft law proposed stripping gay parents of their parental rights. “Everyone was very scared,” continues Khazov, “but the bill was withdrawn, and I think that’s because there was so much noise in the West, and of course because of the Sochi Games – Putin doesn’t want to ruin the biggest project of his life because of the LGBT issue.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I mention Russia’s criminal defamation law. The United Nations special rapporteur for free expression has called for all states to decriminalise defamation because it threatens to push journalists into self-censorship. I ask Khazov if he knows of any newspaper that has been targeted by the authorities using criminal defamation legislation.
“Actually, we were,” he says. “The New Times was targeted by that law a month ago.” One of Khazov’s colleagues, he tells me, wrote an article about a number of judges who were allegedly in possession of fake or plagiarised PhDs (there is currently a large-scale fake PhD racket in Russia, with a number of politicians and public figures implicated). “After the article was published,” says Khazov, “people started asking: ‘How can someone be a judge and hold a fake PhD?’ The judges sued us and they won. We were ordered to pay U$35,000. That’s a lot of money for us – we’re a newspaper without a single page of advertising.
“We’ve appealed,” he adds. “But I’m sure we’ll lose: the courts in Russia are not very honest.”