JUST A FEW YEARS AGO only a handful of scholars and activists had anything to say about gay Russians. Recently though, thanks to the conjunction of the Olympics and the passage of various anti-gay laws in Russia, it seems like everyone has had to confront it: cultural figures like Harvey Fierstein, who penned an op-ed in The New York Times; Stephen Fry, who included Russia in his documentary on gay rights; Dustin Lance Black and Gus van Sant, who went to Petersburg for the Side by Side film festival; activists like Peter Tatchell, Michael Petrelis, and Queer Nation, who staged demonstrations; President Obama, who chose gay and lesbian athletes to send as the official delegation to the Olympics. The press regularly asked President Putin, the IOC, and Olympic athletes their positions on the issue of gays in Russia.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know: What is life like for gays in Russia? The question often comes with the implication that gay life there is a dark, dire affair, lived in fear and secrecy. High-profile laws and Western coverage of their passage have advanced this paradigm: laws such as the ban on “gay propaganda” and the ban preventing citizens of any country that allows marriage equality from adopting Russian orphans. Some critics have claimed that this paradigm is a distortion created by Western journalists; others, particularly left-leaning scholars, suggest that the direness of the situation for gay Russians has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Putin himself has pointed out that the criticism is hypocritical: there are, after all, anti-gay laws on the books in many US states, not to mention recent moves in several states to allow discrimination against gay people on religious grounds.

Amid all the vocal criticism and hand wringing, one has to wonder: what do gay Russians themselves have to say about being gay in Russia? It turns out a lot, and 29 of their life stories are revealed in their own words in the new collection Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon.

Read the full article at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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