Sending Our Gay Students to Russia

by Eliot Borenstein


When our undergraduates come back in the fall and start talking about their plans to study abroad, we in Russian Studies have to ask ourselves a question:  what do we say to our LGBT students who are thinking about studying in the Russian Federation?

For many of us, this is not an abstract question. I have the good fortune of teaching at New York University, just a ten-minute walk from the site of the Stonewall Uprising that started the modern gay rights movement.  I’ve never seen any actual statistics about the LGBT population at NYU, but it is safe to say that this is a place where many students are quite comfortable being out with their classmates and instructors. And, if we’re lucky, some of them may want to study Russian.

The anti-gay laws recently passed by the Russian legislature are only part of the concern.  After all, the Soviet Union had laws that imprisoned men for homosexual activity, but gay and lesbian foreign exchange students could reasonably spend a semester in the USSR without fear of being shipped off to a prison camp.  In part, this was the happy byproduct of widespread cultural naiveté–the USSR never perfected gaydar technology. That is, it was understood that homosexuals and lesbians existed, but only as such rare, abject freaks that the designation couldn’t possible apply to an actual person you might know.  The result was a queer invisibility whose uses are certainly familiar in the West (“If only that nice Liberace could meet the right girl…”)

In the 1990s,  when gay students and friends would ask me about the safety of traveling and studying in Russia, my answer was basically this: Yes, the prevailing attitude is quite homophobic, but 1) LGBT are still largely invisible to the average person, and 2) even if people will say horrible things about LGBT people, you’re unlikely to be beaten up simply for your sexual identity.  Whether or not I was right then, I certainly wouldn’t be right if I said that now.  In fact, I’d be grossly irresponsible.

Again, teaching at my university brings an added layer of irony.  NYU has a campus in Abu Dhabi, and one of the many contentious issues that has come up in the NYU community here in the States is the status and rights of our LGBT students and faculty.  But I have greater faith in the safety of our LGBT students in the UAE than I do in the Russian Federation.  Partly because Abu Dhabi, like certain other countries in the Arab world at various times, has inadvertently given LGBT people the benefit of “don’t ask, don’t tell” even while trying to legislate them out of existence.  Pride parades are out of the question, but it is entirely possible to live by flying under the gaydar.

To a Western liberal, this may well seem morally objectionable.   But there is an argument to the effect that the Western liberal emphasis on the right to a public affirmation of identity is a secularization of a Protestant insistence on the total coherence between the public and private self.  It’s an argument that isn’t persuasive politically, even if it has some purchase anthropologically.   But it’s no longer an argument that could be relevant to Russia.

In recent years, Russia has become  a less comfortable place to send students who are identifiably “different.”  I’ve heard unpleasant stories from Asian Americans, while one of our most promising black students, after being treated like a circus freak for four months, has vowed she will never go back.  Even I’ve had some difficult moments, and that’s for being just “swarthy” enough to be mistaken for a Chechen by the local police.

Gays and lesbians have never found widespread acceptance in post-Soviet Russia.  The current laws against “gay propaganda” are a perfect fit with the casual disdain for “sexual minorities” in popular culture. In the popular fiction of the 1990s, one could find frequent references to entertainers who claimed to be gay or lesbian just to “follow fashion” or “get attention” (T.A.T.U. has a lot to answer for). in other words, the media “turned” people gay.  Even liberal writer Boris Akunin, whose novel Coronation can be read as sympathetic to homosexual men, resorts to crass caricature when setting his fiction in contemporary times: Nicholas Fandorin’s secretary Valya is a flamboyant gay male transvestite who is always playfully hitting on his boss, before eventually becoming an MTF transsexual, apparently on a whim (feeble comedy and misinformation all in one!).

In the few months since anti-gay legislation has been adopted, we’ve seen a significant rise in ant-LGBT violence and intimidation, from the spate of videos showing gay teens harassed and forced to drink their own urine to beatings and murder.  The new laws do not call for violence, but they serve as a dog whistle to chauvinist, homophobic forces:  it’s open season on gays.  The government did not mastermind these attacks, but responsibility still lies with the Duma and Kremlin.

So what do we tell our students?  First, we can acknowledge living in glass houses (Mark Carson’s murder by a homophobic gunman stunned Greenwich Village this summer).  Second, it’s worth recalling that shocking crimes play havoc with our understanding of probability: we don’t warn our students not to fly because of a plane crash, and perhaps we don’t warn our students away from a country because of a murder.  But we should make sure our students have as much information as possible, and let them know that visibility can bring vulnerability (especially to gay men, who are the primary target of a campaign that is so clearly connected to anxieties about “manliness”). We cannot make decisions for our students, but if the profession does not address the issue publicly and carefully, then we have failed in our responsibility.

13 responses to “Sending Our Gay Students to Russia”

  1. Happenstance says:

    How would asians be treated as circus freaks? Russia has loads and loads of Asians, it’s lile 10% of the population.

    • Natalia says:

      Having just come from Ukraine this summer, I would say that people from Africa are treated as circus freaks, while Asians are treated as second (third) class citizens. During my recent trip, I was shocked that still people in Ukraine are pointing fingers and bringing their friends’ attention to an African student walking on the street. This was the case 24 years ago when I left Ukraine, but I thought things would change by now when American movies and music videos are a part of pop culture there. Sadly, nothing changed. As for Asians, indeed, there are more of them than Africans, but all sorts of derogatory terms are used to refer to anybody but Slavs.

    • powelstock says:

      You need to read more carefully. The student who experienced that treatment was African American.

  2. Ian says:

    It is fine and well to tell them that it is dangerous but the next step has to be to provide them with practical information (beyond it can be dangerous) because people will still go. This means putting them in touch with local LGBT people who can teach them what is dangerous and what is not and giving them real, practical information. I think LGBT faculty have a special obligation in this role lest it simply become another point quickly explained by a study abroad program official trying to provide for a potential liability, but with no personal experience or understanding of how things work on the ground. The decision to go is only the beginning.

  3. Helena says:

    As regards attitudes, see http://www.gazeta.ru/news/: Более 300 тысяч человек призвали отменить российский закон о запрете гей-пропаганды

  4. levinjf says:

    When I toured the USSR in 1961 with fellow American students, no one–American or Russian–discussed sexual preferences in public, and everything worked out just fine.

  5. […] “Sending Our Gay Students to Russia,” a blog post by Eliot Borenstein of NYU about potential issues faced by LGBTQ students studying abroad in Russia. […]

  6. Gina Gilliland says:

    In March 2016, Colin Madsen student at Irkutsk was likely targeted and killed because he was perceived as being gay since staying in Arshan with three other make students in Arshan.

  7. Gina Gilliland says:

    Police corruption and violence is rampant in Republic of Buryatia. Take notice not to be alone as foreign student there.

  8. Ayesha Khan says:

    So , it means studying for LGBT students in Russia are safe, and they should go their to studies and what about those who cannot afford going to Russia and studying there ?

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