Spreading “Gay Propaganda” With Love

New York-based writer Joseph Huff-Hannon on his new anthology of queer Russian love stories, co-edited by Russian author Masha Gessen.
February 19, 2014
Joseph Huff-Hannon
On the opening day of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi,  four LGBT activists were arrested in St. Petersburg while preparing to hang a sign from the Belinskiy Bridge quoting Principle 6, the Olympic Charter’s non-discrimination clause. During the Olympic torch relay in January, another protestor was arrested for displaying a rainbow flag as the procession passed through his hometown 560 miles north of Sochi. By the time this article goes to print, the games will be winding to a close—and there’s no way to predict what violence or intimidation additional protestors may face from police in the meantime. What’s certain, however, is that the Olympics will have spelled neither the beginning nor the end of hardships for queer Russians, who have faced increasing violence and oppression since the outlawing of loosely-defined “gay propaganda” early last summer. 
A new anthology edited by writer-activists Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon takes its inspiration—and title—from this infamous law. Gay Propaganda (OR Books) brings together 29 first-person accounts of life and love from LGBT Russians living both in Russia and abroad. Some of these stories are told jointly by couples, others narrated alone, all running the gamut of sweet and sad, extraordinary and mundane. One man meets a handsome stranger on the Internet only to be robbed and gay-bashed by him and his brother the next week, with no hope of help from the police, while a lesbian couple conspires to compete together as partners in a dance competition though it’s against the rules. 
Reading Gay Propaganda feels like getting to know a bunch of new friends at an intimate dinner party, listening to the revealing sort of stories that give you a true sense of someone’s spirit—and Gessen and Huff-Hannon’s fine editing allows the unique personality of each person interviewed to shine through on the page. Particularly personable are the couples’ courtship narratives, capturing the “No, no, you tell it!” quality of every meet-cute tale. 
Though Huff-Hannon tells me, “We’re not under any illusion that Russian bookstores will stock the book”—some Russian journalists and book reviewers have deemed the book too risky even to write about—the release of Gay Propaganda was timed to coincide with the start of the Sochi Olympics, and a Russian-language e-book version has been made available for free download in the tradition of samizdat (dissident literature disseminated under Soviet rule). 
“A lot of LGBT activists in Russia already know about the book, since we interviewed a number of them, so we expect most of the outreach in Russia will be through word of mouth, social media, passing around the link to the free book download, and circulating print books around once we manage to get them inside Russia.”
It seems fitting that the Internet should play such a crucial role in Gay Propaganda’s life within Russia, as, for so many of those whose stories are collected here, the world wide web was an early and primary means of connecting with other LGBT people. “I have lots of friends who are lesbians—I met most of them through an online Anne Rice community…” one woman says matter-of-factly. For the isolated and under-siege, community can still be found online. 
And the making of Gay Propaganda was truly a collaborative community effort. “It was a really interesting process,” Huff-Hannon describes, “…I organized interviews with Russians abroad or seeking asylum, often with the help of my boyfriend as a translator—he was born in Moscow—while Masha organized interviews around Russia. All pieces were edited by both of us, and translated into both languages.”
One special delivery is already in the works: Huff-Hannon says they’ll be “sending a copy to the Mayor of Sochi, who recently told the BBC that his city doesn’t have any gay people. In fact Sochi has at least one thriving gay bar, and one of the couples we interviewed for the book, Andrei and Roman, are the owners.”
As you’re reading this, hopefully a young person is reading Gay Propaganda somewhere in Russia, seeing his or her own feelings and experiences validated in book form. Gessen and Huff-Hannon’s is a moving and vital anthology of witness—and for those us in the States, an important reminder of the rights we take for granted and the obligation we owe to our queer brothers and sisters under attack across the globe.
Joseph Huff-Hannon recommends: Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face by his co-editor Masha Gessen; Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia by David Tuller