On January 25, Kremlin-friendly journalist Anton Krasovsky invited a bunch of drag queens on his show on KontrTV, a Kremlin-owned channel. It was his personal protest against a proposed law in the Russian parliament, the Duma, which would ban distributing “gay propaganda” to minors. The law’s broad definition of “propaganda” would prohibit publicly discussing gay relationships, comparing them to heterosexual ones, or calling them “normal.” That is, it would effectively criminalize the process of coming out—so often the driving force for wider social acceptance of gays. Violations would be punishable by hefty fines and, for foreigners, potential imprisonment. Krasovsky had long been a Kremlin shill, but this seemed to break his avid appetite for serving the state. “I’m gay,” he said on the air. “And I’m as much of a person as you, my dear viewers, as President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, and the deputies of the Duma.”
The transmission was cut instantaneously. That night, everything Krasovsky had done for the channel was purged from its site. Later that night, he was fired—via text message.
Krasovsky and I had often clashed, but this summer, he wrote to me asking for advice, as life in Russia “had become unsafe and unproductive.” His mother now wanted to sell her house and move, because, Krasovsky says, “now all the neighbors know that I’m not a TV star but a fucking fag.”
When I contacted him for this article, I asked if anything had surprised him about coming out in Russia. He responded: “It wasn’t that I was surprised as much as I was gladdened to discover how amazing our people is. I get thousands of letters of support. Thousands. But only a few contain threats.”
In Moscow, one of my closest friends is Mike, a gay American journalist. In 2010, he met Fedya, a Russian seven years his junior. Mike called the next day to tell me he had met “the one,” and soon they were living together—nesting really. They made a conscious decision not to hide their sexuality. They held hands in the streets, they kissed in public, and, amazingly, no one seemed to mind.
One day, Mike and Fedya went to a party for Fedya’s older brother, a soccer fanatic. “We pull up to the house, and there is heavy-metal music playing, a bunch of dudes swilling cognac and vodka out of plastic cups. And we walk in and all heads snap in our direction,” Mike recounts. One of the friends, who had clearly spent most of the afternoon drinking, was watching with a wary, slanting look. Later that evening, he approached Mike: “I was sure he was going to try to pick a fight. Instead, he thrust a cup of cognac in my hand, raised his glass, and said, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of love it is, as long as it’s true love.'"
This story of the party comes from an essay Mike wrote about Fedya’s family learning, grudgingly, to accept their son. It was never published, because Fedya’s mom worried about her friends’ reaction. Mike is Mike’s real name, but Fedya is not Fedya’s name.
Maria Kozlovskaya is a lawyer and she was asked to resign from her previous job at the Russian branch of a Western tobacco distributor. “My boss said we don’t align on certain core principles,” Kozlovskaya says. “She thought that gays are all pedophiles who corrupt children.” Kozlovskaya came out to her mom about seven times, and, each time, her mom pretended it was news.
Kozlovskaya works in gay advocacy in St. Petersburg, where there has been a spike in anti-gay violence. (There are no official statistics, but Kozlovskaya’s group, the LGBT Network, estimates that 15 percent of LGBT people were assaulted last year.) “People are changing their behavior to protect themselves,” Kozlovskaya says. “They don’t wear rainbow pins anymore, they don’t hold hands outside.”
Recently, when Kozlovskaya and a client—an assault victim—arrived at the courthouse, they were met by a group of skinheads. “They egged me and beat up the victim,” Kozlovskaya says. “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”
There is a group in Russia called Occupy Pedophilia run by a neo-Nazi named Maksim “the Hatchet” Martsinkevich. The group uses young men to lure older men into sexual encounters, at which point Maksim, usually shirtless, interrogates them on camera before pouring a bottle of urine on their heads.
Dozens of these videos can be found on YouTube. “Hello, my dear young lovers of extremism,” says Maksim in one. “As usual, I am without a shirt. Why? Because I am very poor. All my money goes to growth hormones, to anabolics ... to look good.” In his interrogations, he asks, in exhaustive detail, who is a top, and who is a bottom, and who likes to suck whose “pee-pee.”
One young man in the city of Pskov was targeted by the Hatchet and complained to officials. In return, the Hatchet and his goons posted a 15,000 ruble ($450) bounty on his head. Terrified, the young man came out to his mother and asked for her help. His mother said she didn’t care about his sexual orientation and dragged him off to file a police report.
The same thing happened to a young man in Perm, in the Ural Mountains. He told his mother; she promptly disowned him.
In May, a group of young men in Volgograd was sitting around drinking beer. “In the course of the conversation, it became clear that their 23-year-old friend was a homosexual, which enraged the rest of the group,” according to a news report. At first, they started to beat him. Then they stripped him and began shoving beer bottles into his anus. Two bottles fit, whole, and a third made it part of the way in. By this point, he was unconscious, so his friends put some cardboard under him and tried to set it alight. They failed, and left, but it dawned on them that he might turn them in. “One of the young men took a boulder weighing about 20 kilos and threw it eight times onto the head of the victim.”
The man’s mourning friends posted testimonials online. One wrote, “He had no signs of homosexuality.”
This winter, my friend Andrey, who is gay, was diagnosed with HIV. By then, he was 105 pounds and his vision was going. Andrey was stuck in the hospital for five months, surrounded by heroin addicts and convicts, who make up most of Russia’s HIV cases. His Moscow friends—a hip, progressive bunch—started a private Facebook group to help fund his treatment and schedule visits so he was never alone. “I was afraid that they’d judge me,” he says. “I am still in total shock at how incredible my friends are.”
Andrey is out of the hospital and on meds that have restored his health but are hell on his joints. “I don’t know whether to tell people,” he says, referring to his diagnosis. Russia has one of the fastest-growing HIV rates in the world, but, Andrey says: “There is no information on it anywhere. Everyone speaks in whispers about it here. Even the doctors.”
In February, as the gay-propaganda law made its way through the Duma, a popular Moscow magazine called Afisha ran a rainbow flag on its cover. Inside were the stories and portraits of 30 gay men and women of Moscow. They were lawyers, entrepreneurs, nurses, and I.T. specialists; there was even a welder named “Sergei Ivanov,” the Russian equivalent of John Smith. They told the stories of their “kaming aut”, which has become Moscow slang for any moment of honesty.
One subject was Alexander Smirnov, a press attaché in the Moscow mayor’s office. “I hide the fact that I’m gay,” he told Afisha. “If someone at work starts joking about fags, I smile like an idiot.” He broke his silence after hearing Putin and Medvedev boasting that there was no anti-gay discrimination in Russia. Smirnov predicted to Afisha that, after the article appeared, “they’ll quietly ask me to turn in my resignation.” A few days after publication, that’s exactly what happened.
Sasha, an acquaintance of mine, was 40, single, and childless. Shortly before I left Moscow last fall, she had approached our mutual friend Boris, a raucous young gay man who co-owns several of the restaurants and bars we loved to linger in. She and Boris both belonged to the cozy cocoon of the city’s old intelligentsia, so she asked Boris if he’d father a child with her, and he agreed. This was not kept secret, nor did people seem to judge their unorthodox non-coupling.
On June 18, their daughter, Elena, was born. “I am incredibly, incredibly grateful to and happy for our daddy Boris,” Sasha wrote on Facebook. The accompanying picture gathered more than 1,000 likes and hundreds of ebullient notes. I’d never seen this circle await a child so eagerly.
And yet, although Elena was born the day the Duma passed a law banning foreign adoptions by gay couples, and a week before Putin signed the gay-propaganda bill into law, no one drew a connection between her birth and a legislative push that prohibits anyone calling Sasha and Boris’s relationship “normal.” People welcomed Elena because everyone adored Sasha, and everyone adored Boris, and everyone in Moscow loves babies.
When I asked Boris’s permission to tell this story, he balked, and agreed only after I promised that I wouldn’t use their real names. I pointed out that he and his boyfriend had been photographed in Afisha’s kaming aut issue and used their full names. That was four months before the law passed, he explained. Since then, “everyone’s gone savage here.”
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.