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Conversation about Queer life in Russia

I received an inquiry from Paige Sunderland and asked if I could use her excellent interview questions and my answers for my opening blog. Here they are:

P.S. I read on your website that you traveled to Russia in 1991, and I am wondering how has societys viewpoint of homosexuls changed?

S.F. I have been to Russia many times. Homosexuality was never talked about before the 1990s. In 1991, the prevailing opinion among people was that they were criminals, prisoners, prostitutes,or mentally deficient, that homosexuals were mostly in prison and they they became that way in prison. If a lesbian or gay man was ever open about their sexuality they would be put in prison or a psychiatric hospital. There was a law, Article 121, that actually was in place since 1933 which convicted men to 5-8 years in prison for being gay. Women were most often put in psychiatric hospitals throughout this period. (probably worse that prisons). Society's opinion was governed by this. You can imagine the prejudices and the amount of fear among gay people.

In the 1990s because of the change in political structure and the influence of all kinds of ideas from "the West" people began to get more interested in all kinds of issues including homosexuals. There were talk shows and interviews with gay men and lesbians, books, slick magazines, even TV shows that began to talk more about this issue. Then things changed again in the mid 2000s when Putin and the right wing began their campaigns to harrass and push gays and lesbians and trans people back into the closet and promote hatred and fear.

P.S. In reading your bio on amazon and also on your website, I noticed that you used the word “queer” in reference to homosexuals. Why this word?

S.F. It's a general word for all sexual minorities and people who identify as other that has been used among gays and lesbians for a long time. Even Russian gays use it--"kvir" It comes from our own gay and lesbian movement in the 70s and 80s when we tried to turn the negative word that straight people were using against us into a positive word. Now it is growing in positive use. It means gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, any alternative gender and sexuality. And queer has also become an identity for younger people.

P.S. Of the people you have interviewed, who are some that stand out to you and why?

S.F.I did a book of interviews in Russian that I will be translating soon into English. Called Pink Flamingos in Russian, it came out in 2004 and was sold out almost immediately in Russia. It's a book of interviews of Siberian gays lesbians and transgender peopl. I can't say that one stands out. They are all special and even the ones I haven't published. I remember so much about the actual interviews and the moments of connection and self-awareness that occurred. It was a great experience. One translated interview included in My Pink Road to Russia is with Kuzmich, a man who was in prison fro 18 year for being gay. We went back to him a second time to videotape him because he was such a fascinating storyteller--but also because of who he was. And then he died shortly after the interview. only 57. What a life he must have lived. Perhaps that one stands out for me.

P.S. Are gulags or other forms of prison camps still present today? Do you think some homosexuals are imprisoned because of the anti gay laws?

S.F. Yes gulags are still present and yes there are still gays in prison in Russia. When the law was repealed in 1993 a journalist I knew tried to investigate this--would gays be freed after the law was repealed?--no was the answer. They not only continued to serve sentences but they were often re-convicted for other things, just as before the 1990s. Gays were sometimes put in prison for "hooliganism" which means bad behavior so they could more easily be convicted. The laws and prison system is very complex and not like our own. It would take more time to explain.

P.S. What were some obstacles you had while writing your book?

S.F. This book was self-published so I had no obstacles. I am now a big proponent of self publishing. With my first book (a version of Pink Flamingos) I had many obstacles. Regular publishers in the U.S. were not interested in publishing my book because they thought it was a narrow subject matter and the books wouldn't sell. I kept trying--small publishers, academic publishers--nothing worked. Then a friend said. Why don't you publish it in Russia and in Russian. They would really appreciate it more than anyone. Very true. And it was smooth sailing after that. My friends in Moscow helped edit the book and the gay publisher I found was great to work with.

P.S. How do you think the international community should respond to the anti gay laws?

S.F. I think first make themselves/ourselves aware of the situation. Then there are a number of possibilities. Ask the queer activists there what they would like help with.Think of creative ways to get attention. Boycott Russian events or appropriate products. Highly publicized protest of international organizations, both official and non-profit would also be good.

P.S. I’m making a twitter page to spread awareness of anti gay laws in Russia. What are some ways I could spread awareness better?

S.F. You could link up with other twitter pages with Russia and LGBT in their titles or # the subjects you want to connect with. I'm not that good with twitter but you might ask someone who is.

P.S. If there is one thing you wished people understood or knew about the fight for LGBT rights, what would it be?

S.F. We are people just like everyone else with hopes and dreams and careers and talents and really it should be no one's business who anyone sleeps with or loves. That is one of the things the Russians kept saying to me and they wondered why I was so open--wouldn't it be better to keep quiet? I told them that people who wanted to be open should feel free to be so because other people's opinions will change once they know people who are gay and see that they are like other people and not weirdos (well some are which is fine too). Ellen Degeneres said this recently--and she was the first person to come out on TV--she said she wished people didn't care what sexuality everyone was. It's really about love and why should anyone stop people from loving.

P.S. Do you think that the new anti gay laws are rooted in Russian culture? Do you think that Russian society views these anti gay laws in the same way as Putin does?

S.F. This is a very good question. I do think Putin represents the thinking of a minority of people and he is using his position to impose his way of thinking and produce laws that oppress and discriminate against gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities. Most people in Russia don't really understand and sometimes just go along with the prevailing opinion. More people are sympathetic because of all the work that was done in the 1990s I don't think anti-gay sentiment is part of Russian culture any more than it is U.S. or any other culture. It is part of the patriarchal system which is international unfortunately. What is acceptable is the heterosexual family life and contributing to the economy the traditional way. All other relationships that don't support this are suspect, even though all kinds of relationships have existed throughout time. Thanks for your question. Let me know if something is not clear.

P.S. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions for me!

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