Afterword: More Than a Death Sentence: The Fight for LGBTQIA+ Representation in Homophobic Russia

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Russia’s long history is fraught with rampant homophobia. LGBTQIA+ Russians have come under increased scrutiny since the passage of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law, which has incited a proliferation of homophobic rhetoric, hate groups, and violence that cause many to live in fear today. The community is consequentially subjected to the law’s far reaches and repeatedly demonized in the media. Those who publicly dissent, such as the authors of the works included here in Life Stories, Death Sentences, face potential danger and further discrimination. Many of these stories and poems are laced with fear, uncertainty, and heartache–emotions we all experience but that are especially prevalent among nonconforming persons in contemporary Russian society. Life Stories, Death Sentences explores their rich and multifaceted lives, however. By contributing more accurate representations of these individuals, the collection attempts to change the harmful narrative that prevails in the media. The brave writers who contributed their work to our folio did so despite any potential harm that may ensue. They valiantly committed to the increased LGBTQIA+ representation that is essential to conquering Russian homophobia.

We intentionally share this collection in the most available format possible: free on the internet. Both the publication format and the palpable nature of the stories make them accessible to almost anyone in need of camaraderie or understanding. Anglophone readers now have the opportunity to learn about LGBTQIA+ Russian life directly from those who experience it, rather than relying on one-sided news headlines. Furthermore, the writers whose work is featured here do not shy away from the most public expressions of themselves and their characters, which is where they find their strength. Within the words that ultimately make them stronger, we also find a fearlessness in their unabashed treatment of sexuality, love, and family.

As someone who identifies as gay, I was ecstatic to have the chance to represent my community through literary translation. The project both excited and frightened me. Having only previously conducted academic research on the topic, I felt unprepared to accurately and aesthetically represent another dissenting voice. At the same time, though, I was eager to explore news ways in which I could help increase the visibility of my community. Fortunately, my investment in this increased visibility overpowered any fears that might have held me back from contributing to the folio. I was also emboldened by the bravery I discovered both in the works I was to translate and in the Russian-speaking vloggers who post coming-out videos on YouTube.

One can find a reprieve from Russia’s rampant hate speech and homophobia in these numerous coming-out videos. Some of the videos explain how to navigate the terrain of a homophobic society, while others exist simply to allow the vlogger to find solace in disclosing their sexuality. There are standalone coming-out videos as well as those that are the first in a long series of videos dedicated to increasing awareness and knowledge of dissident identities. Nonetheless, every single video signifies a concerted, community-wide effort to promote a wider understanding of the community. In offering public expressions of private identities, the vloggers make bold political statements that have the potential to subvert Russian political homophobia. They come out online in an attempt to change the largely accepted–and false–discourse on who they are, much like the writers who contributed to Life Stories, Death Sentences do with their own work.

Individuals who post coming-out videos online also embody the internet’s ability to facilitate representation. Many vloggers who create these videos record them in relaxed domestic settings, as if they randomly turned on their webcams in their bedrooms and began filming. Others are much more calculated in their presentation. Gay vlogger Zhenya Svetski, for example, shares his story with dramatized imagery to call attention to misconceptions about homosexuality. He aims to educate viewers about the severity of current conditions with facts about increased suicide rates within the community. The way in which Svetski exposes his physical and emotional vulnerability renders him ultra-visible and ultimately seeks to enhance LGBTQIA+ representation.

Russian coming-out videos also address the political and personal repercussions of coming out in Russia. Vlogger Natasha Keins, in particular, expresses concerns about how coming out might affect her relationship with her mother. We see a similar theme in the folio story “Her name is Natasha, she’s thirty-six years old, and she doesn’t know what to do” by Stanislav Lvovsky, where the protagonist, Natasha, spends a sleepless night contemplating how her father would react to finding out that her teenage son, Danka, is gay. Nearly all of the Russian-speaking vloggers who come out online also discuss how they negotiate public life. We see this as well in folio poet Friedrich Chernyshev’s eloquent and vulnerable descriptions of using public bathrooms and the Kiev metro as a trans individual.

In a society largely devoid of positive LGBTQIA+ representation, the members of this community are left to their own devices. News detailing the horrors inflicted on these individuals has proliferated with sensationalistic headlines and articles in the years since political homophobia escalated in Russia. A quick Google search of “Russia lgbt” elucidates this, with headlines describing the many ways in which LGBTQIA+ rights are violated in Russia almost daily. “Russia: LGBT Conference Attacked,” “Teenager becomes first minor prosecuted under Russia’s anti-gay ‘propaganda’ laws,” and “Majority of Russians believe gays conspiring to destroy country’s values” are just a few examples. However, Life Stories, Death Sentences goes beyond the morose headlines, showing real people with much more dynamic life experiences than the news articles reveal.

With the bulk of the information we receive regarding LGBTQIA+ Russians appearing solely in these fleeting news snippets, the reality of their lives remains largely invisible, despite numerous conversations about the community on the internet. Those who brave Russia’s dangerous, homophobic climate by propelling themselves into the public eye are the face of the movement to dismantle Russian homophobia. Our collection of poetry and prose ultimately concerns the resulting LGBTQIA+ representation–the lack of it, the potential dangers that accompany it, and most importantly, the hope it can promise.

Nonconforming Russians persist despite calculated efforts by the Russian government and various vigilante groups to erase and demonize their community in common discourse. They continue to correct misconceptions, tell their stories, and gain visibility with subversive coming-out videos and writing such as the poetry and prose featured in Life Stories, Death Sentences. This type of protest against the stifling injustices they face every single day is exactly what will illuminate the community and eventually liberate the courageous faces of the enduring LGBTQIA+ movement.

Bios

David Louden

David Louden received his BA in Russian from the University of Oklahoma in May 2019. After completing a Fulbright Fellowship for the academic year 2019-2020, he will begin his PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He plans to continue studying translation and LGBTQIA+ Russia and Eastern Europe in graduate school.

David Louden

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Copyright (c) David Louden, 2019.