Gay Propaganda

Russian Love Stories



“This project comes at a really important time. There’s nothing like putting a human face on the struggle for acceptance and equality. Love conquers all.” —Greg Louganis, quadruple Olympic gold medalist

“The most potent weapon in the fight against anti-LGBT prejudice is the reality of who we are instead of the caricatures presented by our opponents. The bigots who seek to censor our reality by banning 'gay propaganda' understand this. So do Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon. Projects like theirs are the most potent weapon in the fight against anti-LGBT prejudice, putting the reality of who we are against the caricatures presented by our prejudiced opponents.”
—Barney Frank

“Following in the proud tradition of 'samizdat' writers such as Václav Havel, Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon's new book Gay Propaganda seeks to do the same for the current, life-or-death struggle confronting gay people in Russia today. By shining a much-needed light on the common humanity of those brave gay men and lesbians seeking to go about their daily lives in Russia, or those who have made the difficult choice to leave, this book puts the lie to the malicious stereotypes currently being spewed by the Russian government.” —Roberta Kaplan, lead counsel in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court case which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act

“Hundreds of straight athletes from around the world have joined the effort to advance LGBT respect and equality. Every one of them will appreciate the importance of this project. This book is much needed and couldn't come at a better time.” —Hudson Taylor and Lia Parifax, founders, Athlete Ally

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About the Book

Gay Propaganda brings together original stories, interviews and testimonial, presented in both English and Russian, to capture the lives and loves of LGBT Russians living both in Russia and in exile today. Available in February 2014, in time for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the book is a provocative riposte to Russia’s recently passed and ill-defined ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

As part of a strategy to consolidate political control in Russia following massive pro-democracy protests that shook the government, President Putin’s ruling party decided it needed an enemy to unite the country. Hoping to manipulate backward but widely-held prejudices, it opted to demonize gays and lesbians. As a result, in June 2013, Putin signed a bill banning any and all “propaganda” of so-called non-traditional relationships. Quite predictably, in the months that followed, attacks, firings, and hate crimes have spiked across Russia, and the state-sanctioned campaign shows no sign of abating. The Russian Duma is now debating a law to take children away from gay and lesbian parents.

As the world’s media turns its attention to the host country of the Winter Olympics, the stories gathered in Gay Propaganda offer a timely and intimate window into the hardships faced by Russians on the receiving end of state-sanctioned homophobia. Here are tales of men and women in long-term committed relationships as well as those still looking for love; of those trying to raise kids or taking care of parents; of those facing the challenges of continuing to live in Russia or joining an exodus that is rapidly becoming a flood.

Publication March 20th 2014
224 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-939293-35-0 • E-book ISBN 978-1-939293-36-7

About the Editors

Masha Gessen is an award-winning journalist and author of many books, most recently Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverhead, February 2014). She is a lesbian mother who is abandoning her home in Russia because of the anti-gay laws.

Joseph Huff-Hannon is a celebrated campaigner and writer who has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. He works with the international advocacy group He is one of the founding campaigners of global LGBT rights group, All Out.

Read an Excerpt


Anya lives with her parents, who often go abroad. Their trips provide her and Natasha with the opportunity to live together for short bursts. Anya’s mother is suspicious of the fact that she doesn’t introduce any of her suitors to her parents. However, she refuses to come to terms with the fact that she will never have a son-in-law. Natasha lives with her grandmother, who is kind to Anya but does not suspect that she and her granddaughter are more than just friends.  Anya and Natasha met through a fan fiction community on Livejournal. They used to work together at a children’s café, and they’re in the process of making a book together, but their most important project is partner dancing, with a specialty in “West Coast Swing.”

… Anya and I met at a Surganova concert, seven years ago. I was part of a dance collective and I invited Anya to join. That’s where it all went down.

Once we’d settled into our relationship, we decided to take up partner dancing.

We saw these two girls dancing together at a party and got really excited about it.

Once, we were walking by the Frunzensky Bridge, where every day they play music for anyone who wants to dance. We got next to these people who were doing “Swing Hustle” and started dancing along. Then we found a dance studio for women where they were enrolling new students. We danced there as a couple for a whole year.

We got into the dance community, where no one cares who you are, where you’re from, or whom you’re sleeping with. They only care that you’re on the same wavelength as they are, that you’re dancing.

They taught us to dance about everything. You can dance about love or about the weather. Whatever you want to dance about, you can do it. It’s a free world. This studio was open for another three years, but then there were problems with the space, and enrollment, and then with the law about whatever propaganda, since this was partner dancing for women.
     We switched from “Swing Hustle” to “West Coast Swing.” It’s very fluid, like the sea. It stretches out like a wave.

It doesn’t have end points; it always keeps going. We’re not professional dancers for one simple reason: because we don’t have the right to compete as a pair.

Nata can dance in competitions with other partners, but I can’t. I don’t exactly remember how I ended up taking the man’s part. I probably just wanted the experience.

Anya likes the male partner’s function: he decides what the pair does. The female half can improvise, but she always follows the male.

The male partner structures the dance. He has to think five steps ahead. It’s very complicated: you have to consider technique, the music, and the shape of the dance.

It was very hard for me in the beginning because I was not used to obediently following someone. We even had conflicts, but we’ve learned to understand one another

Nata follows me. When I see that she’s started improvising, I wait and give her time, complementing her movements with my own. It’s an art. The tipping point was when I was able to ask another girl who wasn’t Nata to dance with me at a club. For a dancer, this is a very important step. You can’t always dance with the same partner because it’ll make you worse. You won’t notice your mistakes. I remember sitting there, afraid. How will I ask another girl to dance with me? What will the girl think of me? But then I saw my teacher and asked her. Since then, I’ve known that I can dance with anyone. This is a new level for someone who wants to dance professionally.

Then came the next important stage.

I got lucky last year. Nata and I were supposed to perform at a festival. We registered and prepared a new number. Suddenly, Nata ended up in the hospital. I was about the quit, but Natasha convinced me to participate without her.

Important people come to the festival, such as professional trainers from America and Europe, and give master classes. It’s a great experience, like studying with a native speaker.

I went but I was upset and unsure of myself. I don’t remember what got into me, but after a lesson, I decided to go talk to the head judge. I went up to him and asked, “Excuse me, why can’t I compete in the man’s role?” He looked at me, amazed: “Why not?” Suddenly, a festival volunteer runs up to me and says, “The head judge has allowed you to compete, hurry up and get your number.” Slowly, it dawns on me that they’re letting me participate despite all the rules against it! I was in such shock, and so euphoric, that I called Nata in the hospital, screaming, “Nata, I’m going to compete!” I changed in a panic. They stick a number on my back. I go out onto the floor. Around me, I see the judges, and the people looking at me — it’s all like a dream. I am the only woman in a crowd of male partners. Suddenly, they’re announcing the people who made it to the semi-finals, and I hear my name. I call Nata screaming again. The semi-final happens. I think, “OK, I can relax now.” Suddenly, a woman I met at the competition flies at me: “Anya, did you see the results? You’re in the finals.” I slowly realize that I’m in the finals, in a men’s competition. The final shock of the day was that I made it into the top ten in the finals.

In the top ten on her first try.

It’s been a year and we haven’t been allowed to participate in any other competitions since. In the rules, it says a pair consists of a male and a female partner. But at least they decided in our favor once, and that set an important precedent.

In the Media

Dazed, December 16th 2014

The Cycle (MSNBC), April 1st 2014

Los Angeles Review of Books, March 23rd 2014

Slate, March 17th 2014

Immigration Equality, March 17th 2014

Haaretz, March 13th 2014

Slate, March 12th 2014

Out Magazine, March 6th 2014

Huffington Post, February 28th 2014

Lesbians North London, February 25th 2014

Gawker, February 24th 2014

Immigration Equality, February 20th 2014

Next Magazine, February 19th 2014

Huffington Post, February 19th 2014, February 19th 2014

Towleroad, February 19th 2014

Gay Star News, February 16th 2014, February 16th 2014, February 16th 2014

PEN American Center, February 14th 2014

PEN American Center, February 14th 2014

GLAAD, February 14th 2014

GLAAD, February 14th 2014

Melville House, February 14th 2014

The Rumpus, February 12th 2014

The New Yorker, February 10th 2014

The New Yorker, February 10th 2014

Sabotage Reviews, February 7th 2014

The Independent, February 7th 2014

The Quietus, February 7th 2014

The Guardian, February 6th 2014

New York Daily News, February 3rd 2014

Guernica, February 3rd 2014

Longreads, January 31st 2014

VICE, January 17th 2014

Al Jazeera America, December 31st 2013

Design Taxi, December 11th 2013

Fast Company, December 9th 2013

Q with Jian Ghomeshi, December 4th 2013

Out, November 25th 2013

New York Observer, November 25th 2013

Huffington Post, November 25th 2013

Buzzfeed, November 25th 2013

Huffington Post, October 29th 2013

Dodge & Burn, October 25th 2013

The Moscow Times, October 24th 2013

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