In the law’s shadow

You may remember that earlier this year, the Russian Parliament passed a law outlawing “homosexual propaganda.”

lgbt apartment announcement

Last week an activist sent me this photo, asking whether I might help translate it. It was originally posted (as far as I can tell) on a social networking site with the caption that it was found in the hall of an apartment building in Rostov. The text reads:

Dear residents!

According to surveillance conducted for your building in the first two quarters of 2013 in your entryway, 1 individual of a non-traditional sexual orientation (homosexual, lesbian, etc.) was found. At the present moment further investigative and operational work is being conducted with this individual.

We ask you to show special vigilance in relation to the individual suspected of homosexual propaganda.

Please note that an individual of a non-traditional sexual orientation might propagandize homosexuality not only directly, describing the advantages of a homosexual life or even offering to engage in sexual activity with you or your relatives, but also gradually, surreptitiously, carrying out the work of homosexual propaganda at home over the course of many years.

Understand that a homosexual might be dressed discreetly, might look like you, might be pleasant in social situations and a good acquaintance of yours! Don’t forget that homosexuality does not know age and even a schoolboy or an elderly person could be a propagandist of homosexuality.

Be vigilant in relations with neighbors, especially in your own or neighboring apartments, in the area by the mailboxes and in the elevator. It’s very easy to become a target of homosexual propaganda, and there’s but one short step from a common homosexualist [1] to a homosexual-propagandist who corrupts decent people.

If you suspect anyone among your neighbors of homosexual propaganda, immediately inform the Ministry of Internal Affairs at your precinct or call 2406030 and 02.

The administration

Now, a skeptical reader might question the authenticity of the letter–that is, might suspect that it was not quite what it seemed to be. Certainly many of those discussing it had the same suspicion, and my contact reposted it with the caveat that it was almost certainly fake. Maybe it is in fact the case that the management of an apartment building 1) conducted surveillance and 2) warned their residents of a homosexual propagandist, but more likely some enterprising provocateur concocted the letter on his or her own. In a way, though, the true origin of the letter, the actual motivations of its author(s), are somewhat beside the point. It has a certain effect all on its own, and it demonstrates something about the everyday workings of the “homophobic law,” as LGBT activists often call it.

Over the course of the development of the law [2], first passed in several cities in winter 2011/2012, then at the federal level in 2013, use of the phrase “propaganda of homosexuality” became increasingly widespread in media, online, and in statements by Russian politicians and officials. This is a sort of institutionalization of anti-LGBT discourse. The very phrase “homosexual propagandist” constructs a very specific idea of a gay person (a subversive political agent), and carries with it a specific understanding of homosexuality (threatening, corrupting, infectious). The fact that this language has been adopted, codified, and put into practice by institutions of the Russian state gives it a high level of legitimacy. This is one thing LGBT activists have expressed concerns about for some time now: not just that the law itself will be used to prosecute them, but that the existence of the law might encourage and legitimize other kinds of anti-LGBT actions.

This letter, then, can be seen as an effect of the law, an effect of the state itself, regardless of who produced it. Its language is derived from official, legalistic language. It draws on the threat of the surveillance state, whose existence gives a veneer of possibility to the claim that an apartment building is under watch. This is a text that could only be written in the shadow of the “homophobic law.”

[1] Гомосексуалист and гомосексуализм, used in the original, are common in cultural conservatives’ and officials’ speech about homosexuality, so they likely sound relatively normal to those communities. I chose to use the archaic-sounding “homosexualist” rather than the more neutral-in-English “homosexual” because many LGBT activists in Russia have been arguing for a change in usage (гей, ЛГБТ, гомосексуальность). Fun with language politics!

[2] This is an issue I hope to think through as I’m writing up my dissertation. The big question is, where could we say the law came from? It’s not quite so simple as a top-down order from Putin and his circle–similar laws were tested out in provincial cities and Petersburg, support gathered (grassroots? or drummed up?) among Orthodox activist groups, it was discussed at length in various mass media. It becomes difficult to say, at least without careful research, whether there was an element of public demand for this law, and if so, where exactly it originated, who got the ball rolling, so to speak.