The book Gay Propaganda, edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon, provides a platform from which LGBT Russian voices can be heard. Gay Propaganda includes stories form gay couples raising their children, people living in exile to escape the anti-LGBT climate, advocates who have been arrested, and LGBT people from all walks of life.
The following excerpt from Gay Propaganda tells the story of Aleksandr and Ivan. They recounted their story to editor Joseph Huff-Hannon.
Aleksandr and Ivan were married at New York City Hall on October 10, 2013, just a few months after leaving Russia. A day after the wedding, Aleksandr posted photos of the ceremony on Facebook, which then got picked up by a local blogger in their hometown of Murmansk. The blog post itself was relatively supportive, but 95% of the comments were predictable: hateful and derogatory, some calling for their death.
Both Aleksandr and Ivan had what they described as good jobs back in Russia. Aleksandr was an agent at the Murmansk port, dealing with customs, and Ivan was a telecoms marketing manager. In February, Aleksandr was attacked in front of their apartment building by men who shouted homophobic slurs and slashed his forearm with a knife. A few weeks later, the windows of their car were smashed in. In July, they left their jobs, sold their apartment, packed a suitcase, and moved to the U.S. to start from scratch. “People think we came here for financial reasons,” Aleksandr says. “But we had a good life in Murmansk. We’re not in search of a good life; we want a safe life.”
IVAN: Aleksandr was quite popular as a photographer in Murmansk, quite well known. He even had a museum show supported by the local government. That’s when he had this great idea to come out: he thought if people liked him as a photographer, they’d like him as a gay guy. It obviously didn’t work out that way.
ALEKSANDR: I came out on Twitter in February. I wrote: “I’m gay but let’s not talk about it.” A bunch of people retweeted it, some local newspapers wrote about it, and soon the insults started. The day I came out, the Murmansk government unfollowed me on Twitter. Things changed really quickly after that.
We moved to St. Petersburg first and stayed with some friends. But the things they told us made me think it’s not any safer there than in Murmansk. I’m planning for the future. I don’t want to live like a spy. I want to live an honest life. To many Russians, maybe it looks easy to live like a spy. But you have to lie to family, to friends.
Here I can be open. It’s my dream. We can sit together, we can hug. I don’t have to worry about other people. We moved from the Middle Ages to the modern era. I’m only now realizing how difficult it is back there.
IVAN: We met at a little party, at a friend’s house. When I first met him, I thought he was quite arrogant. He backed me into a corner and said, “I like you and want to have something with you.” I thought, “Why not.” He was young, handsome, sporty. I liked him. And as these things go, after some drinks he came over and stayed the night. Then he stayed the second night. Then he stayed the third night. Then he came back with his suitcases.
I think the first year was hard sometimes. To get used to each other. But after the first year, things were great. We were thinking about getting married even while we were still in Murmansk, two or three years ago. We thought about traveling to Sweden or Norway to get married, and then coming home. It’d be just for us. It was difficult to hide our relationship. We had a very small flat, we told people we were students, roommates, except for a few close friends. When our parents would come to visit, one of us would go for a walk for a few hours, and we’d hide each other’s things.
When I first told my parents, of course they weren’t happy. I don’t think anybody in this crazy Russian world is happy to find out their son is gay. But my parents are very wise people. My mom once told me that she’s happy for me that I met Aleksandr, but she’s sorry she gave birth to me in a place where I can’t be happy.
I would never do this alone. I would have just continued to live the lie that most every other Russian gay guy lives. You have your job, you have some friends, you have other friends who don’t know about you. But when you have a partner it’s easier to go somewhere where you don’t know anybody.
ALEKSANDR: When we got married, I was crying. He was, too. I couldn’t even say “yes” when she said, “Do you take Ivan…” but I finally answered yes. Afterward, we had a little party with our one friend, who was our witness, and ate sushi and drank champagne. The most difficult moment of the ceremony was giving a kiss. When you have to hide everything for so long, for years, it’s not easy to show everything all of a sudden.
IVAN: The ceremony itself is a very big event in anybody’s life. We didn’t have relatives or friends there who could support us. I was happy, of course, but sad that my parents couldn’t be there. After the ceremony, when we got our marriage certificate and went to take some photos, we heard some people saying things like: “How sweet, look at them.” It was hard to believe. Later we sent some photos to our parents, and they sent us congratulations back. My sister had to look at our wedding pictures at night, after the kids went to sleep. After all, it’s illegal in Russia: you can’t show the kids.
We hope it will be easier in the future in Russia. Maybe when Putin leaves. Not all Russians are homophobic, but when you have it coming down from the top? Maybe things can change in Russia, but it will take like two hundred years.
ALEKSANDR: No, sooner. Maybe one hundred years.