Essig: Believing in Lesbian Utopias in Putin's Russia
This essay was written by Laurie Essig (Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Middlebury College) for the 2019 Presidential Plenary on the topic "Belief".
We no longer believe in lesbians. Like unicorns, communist revolutions, and god, the lesbian is dead.
Once upon a time in a place far from Putin’s Russia, the lesbian was a radical and even utopian figure. As the Radicalesbians wrote in their 1970 manifesto, The Woman-Identified Woman, “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” This beautifully heroic figure, the lesbian, allows all women to put other women front and center, thereby “creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation.1
Of course, that was fifty years ago. Today the lesbian is neither revolutionary nor does she contain utopian possibilities. Her existence is somehow suspect. Claiming a lesbian identity might indicate an over-investment in body parts and gender assignment at birth. It might indicate “radical feminism” which insists that gender can only be that assigned at birth. The Pride Center in my town of Burlington, VT, decided to change the lesbian support group to a women’s support group since they see lesbianism as innately transphobic.
The conflation of all lesbians with transphobia now produces the lesbian as somehow old-fashioned, out of step, often labeled a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist or TERF. This relatively new figure, the TERF, is cropping up everywhere, demanding to be erased, by violence if necessary.
The San Francisco Public Library had to reconsider an exhibit in April 2018 after it displayed a tee shirt splattered in fake blood that read “I PUNCH TERFS!”2 It is perhaps worth noting the obvious: the vast majority of lesbians, lesbian groups and publications oppose transphobia. Nearly all of the mainstream lesbian magazines, including Curve and Autostraddle, recently signed a statement declaring that they “believe that trans women are women and trans people belong in our community. We do not think supporting trans women erases our lesbian identities. Yet the figure of the TERF haunts lesbian identity, marking it anything but revolutionary or utopian.3
Despite rumors of her death, the lesbian as a potentially revolutionary and even utopian figure manages to live on. In the US, when the women’s team won the World Cup in 2019, Americans of a variety of genders and sexualities fell madly in love with the team’s lesbian co-captain, Meghan Rapinoe. Rapinoe was described in sports media outlets as a “purple-haired goddess” and celebrated as much for her skills in football as her demands for equal pay for women players and her willingness to publicly criticize the Trump administration.4 Young boys even dressed up as Ms. Rapinoe for Halloween, signaling the return of the revolutionary lesbian to US pop culture.
The figure of the revolutionary lesbian also survives in the most inhospitable of climates, Putin’s Russia. Publicly, the lesbian lives on in the form of social and even actual death. Yet privately, lesbians in Russia create their own worlds and their own futures in a variety of ways signalling that purple-haired goddesses are not so easily destroyed.
Being a lesbian in Russia, whether in 1970 or today, has always required a level of belief that borders on martyrdom. In Soviet Russia the lesbian was invisible except as a form of mental illness, a phantom effect of bourgeois society. She existed mostly in psychiatric discourse and barely ever appeared in the public sphere.
In the 1980s, when I would ask where I could find other lesbians, I was often told a joke: “In the US you send your gays and lesbians to Camp San Francisco, here in the Soviet Union we send them to Camp Siberia.” It was funny not because it was true (actually lesbians were not prosecuted under the penal code 121.1 against muzhelozhestvo and so were not necessarily sent to Siberia as much as they were threatened with the псих-дом), but because lesbians and gays really were invisible in the public sphere. As if they had all been rounded up and sent somewhere.5
In Russia today the lesbian is no longer invisible, but instead, like the gay man, she is hyper-visible. Gays and lesbians function in Russian culture as the threat of foreign contagion, part of Gayropa, a kind of perversion of the Russian soul. This level of homophobia makes lesbian existence more visible, but also much more dangerous. According to the Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion (VTsYOM), two-thirds of Russians believe that LGBTQ groups are attempting to destroy Russia’s spiritual values by propagandizing “nontraditional sexual relationships.”6 This sort of paranoid fear of queers was evidenced in Vladimir Putin’s interview last summer about the dangers of liberalism. According to Putin,
we have no problems with LGBT persons. God forbid, let them live as they wish. But some things do appear excessive to us. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles. I cannot even say exactly what genders these are, I have no notion. Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.7
And then, of course, we have the attempt to contain lesbian and all queer existence through various “anti-propaganda” laws. The effect of the 2013 Federal Anti-Propaganda law on daily life is increasingly clear.
According to Human Rights Watch, the-effect of the propaganda law on LGBT youth in Russia has been devastating. Not only are LGBT youth facing more discrimination and isolation in their lives, but workers in mental health professions feel constrained to speak openly about sexuality with them. This leaves LGBT youth in Russia facing more oppression with less support.8
Just this week we have the prosecution for “sexual assault” because some children asked a gay man questions about his life for a video as part of the series “Real Talk.” According to work done by our colleague Alexander Kondakov, vigilante violence against gay, lesbian and trans Russians has gone up considerably since the passage of the 2013 law.9 According to one report on violence against queer women (bisexual, lesbian and trans women) in the North Caucasus, there is a lot of violence that is directly the result of lesbophobia and yet when the Western media reports on violence there, it is nearly always about gay men. Because violence against women is so high, when it is against queer women, it often is overlooked because of the high levels of violence against women more generally.10
So it is that lesbians have moved from being totally invisible to hyper-visible in Russia and yet still an impossibility. Too hated, too dangerous, too vile and yet also—because of the flow of popular feminisms on social media—lesbians are also imagined as too stuck in binary thinking about sex and gender, too anachronistic to exist in these times, too old-fashioned to even be a viable identity. In short, we can no longer believe in lesbians.
In what follows I consider the belief that lesbianism in Russia is not just possible, but that the lesbian continues to signal a revolutionary and even utopian set of practices, despite state and religious oppression, cultural disgust, and a growing global movement that refigures the lesbian as a TERF.
My research consists primarily of reading lesbian-themed articles in the online LGBTQ magazine, Otkrytye (Open), during the first eight months of 2019. I chose this magazine because it was cofounded by a Russian lesbian who wanted to create a publication that spoke as if oppression against the LGBTQ communities in Russia did not exist. In other words—it was founded on utopian principles.
I also conducted five interviews with Russian lesbians/queer women who all consider lesbianism and lesbian feminism as the site of utopian possibilities. These women-identified women were all well-versed in contemporary feminist debates about patriarchy, transphobia, and the intersection of all bodies with race, class and nationality. In other words, these lesbians are in no way representative of lesbians in Russia or anywhere else. They do, however, signal that the lesbian may continue to exist in Russia and elsewhere as a set of utopian possibilities.
Lesbian and Other Queer Futures
All the women I interviewed identified as lesbian, queer or bi. One of them previously identified as a trans man. They had lived or were still living in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and/or Kazan. And to a woman, they had found a way to make remarkably lesbian and even utopian lives despite facing both misogyny and homophobia from family, at work, and the state
Anya,11 who is in her thirties, was able to use the internet to figure out where to meet other lesbians when she moved to Moscow for university. She went immediately to Pushkinskaya Square, but it was not the lesbian utopia she had hoped to find. Instead she found fairly rigid gender roles (pasivnaia/aktivnaia or femme/butch) and no politics.
Eventually, Anya was able to cobble together a life that included both lesbian and feminist politics in her circle in Moscow. She lives and works with feminists, and nearly all her friends are lesbians and feminists.
It’s not perfect. She told me a story about going to a friend’s house for dinner and they were both vegans. A male friend kept referring to veganism as “faggot food” and no one really stopped him. But when Anya can avoid men and spend all her time with women, something she does most days, her world is pretty good. She feels fairly free, despite her fear of the Putin regime, particularly for its crackdown on political dissent. When asked what her lesbian utopia might look like, Anya answered without hesitation—“a world without masculinity, or at least without toxic masculinity.” And that would, she added, “be a world without Putin or his supporters.”
Tanya, who works in the IT industry, also found a lot of Moscow lesbians to be too sexist to provide a comfortable space from which to build a queer future.
A lot of lesbians in Russia are kind of anti-feminist, weirdly… I think there’s one lesbian club open in Moscow… only open on Saturdays… it’s such an oddly non-revolutionary space in many ways… they have a female bouncer which is pretty cool and for the most part don’t let in men which is pretty subversive since women don’t have their own spaces ever in Russia, but every time we go there it feels like an aggressively heterosexual space… there’s no queering of the courting rules… I feel it’s almost as bad as a straight club… well nothing’s as bad as a straight club, but there’s… more of a split into butch and femmes and maybe not as many in the middle (as there are in US).
Despite the lack of commercial lesbian space for Tanya, she has been able to create her own queer feminist future today.
I live in a bit of a bubble because a lot of my friends are feminist, queer and lesbian together… I feel like I live in a little utopian cell in Russia… in my day to day life I work at home… my immediate co-workers are women, my boss is a lesbian. I live with a lesbian feminist, all my friends are feminists, I know one straight guy. I feel like my identity did kind of help create the space I live in. Very rarely do I encounter blatant sexism and I feel like I wouldn’t be able to deal… I’m entertained now when (sexism) does happen like “oh look a mansplainer out in the wild.”
Tanya even decided to use her tech skills to limit the time she spends giving energy to men. She has what she calls her “man app” which allows her to spend thirty minutes a day explaining things to men. It might be on a Facebook page or at work or in the metro, but once men have taken thirty minutes of her time, she walks away and redirects her energy. Not spending energy on patriarchy or men has meant that Tanya can create the queer feminist future she wants “in my apartment right now.” For Tanya, “a feminist future it is not that women stop being caregivers, it’s just that the work we do can be valued and appreciated… and also men have these skills as well.”
For Zhenya, a journalist, it has not always been easy being a lesbian, and yet she has carved out a career writing about feminist and LGBTQ issues, among other things. Her editors know who she is, and her family is pretty okay with her and her girlfriend. Zhenya finds that her lesbian present is always reliant on a sense of intersectional feminism, one that does not ignore the most marginalized among us. Zhenya is concerned about non-Slavic Russians and immigrants to Russia and victims of sexual assault, and how systems of patriarchy and racism are manifest in places like the police station or the court room. For her, there is always the possibility of making things better, but making things better involves making everyone more feminist.
Sveta, an artist and filmmaker, told me: “I can’t really say I’m a lesbian I say I’m a queer … I am fully in solidarity with… lesbians, of course, and between lesbian or gay would put myself on [the] lesbian side and align myself with the feminist struggle.” For Sveta, the possibility of creating a queer and feminist utopia exists as a promise, but one that can never fully be achieved. This is why Sveta is much less interested in identities and more interested in alliances. She sees herself as following in the path of queer of color critique such as that of Jose Muñoz and so her lesbian utopia is a process not a product.
For El, the gender binary is a two-way street that is both oppressive but also always open to movement. Growing up in a small town in central Russia with a father in the military, El was your typical tomboy. She was athletic, hated pink and loved girls and women. El has what she describes as a more masculine build, broad shouldered, muscular. She was often told she should be a man, but she didn’t feel like a man, she felt like a woman who loves women. When she moved to Moscow in the late 1990s, it was what she describes as a “queer utopia.” She could be a lesbian, and life felt free and full of possibilities. However, as Putin consolidated control and anti-homosexual propaganda laws began springing up around the country starting in 2011, something shifted. Her queer utopia in Moscow started to feel a lot less safe. Places for women started to disappear.
El decided to go to a European country to pursue a master’s degree for a while. She worked at a lesbian club, read feminist and queer theory, and fell in love. But she also faced increasing pressure to identify as a transman, which El did for a few years. But then she thought:
Wait, I hate men. I love women. I want to be in the company of all women and I can’t if I’m identifying as a man. It stops me from being part of the conversations and the lives that women have between themselves. And so I decided I wasn’t a transman and I’m just a butch lesbian. I went to a club when I was in Berlin recently and they were having a “Save the Butches” night and I have never felt more at home. I am a butch woman.
For El, knowing that gender is both a construct and a place to land provided her with the lesbian future she needs today. She feels like her life is really dedicated to living as she wants without coercion to “be” a man or “be” a woman, but also allows her to devote her time and her energy to other women, although she accepts that as a complicated term and one that includes transmen and transwomen in it.
Otkrytye published several articles in 2019 in which lesbianism was portrayed as a radical set of possibilities for building a queer future. These articles provide feminist critiques of cultural representations of lesbians, responses to political homophobia, various ways of refusing the gender binary, and an insistence on political action. We can discuss that more thoroughly if you want, but suffice it to say that Otkrytye constructs the lesbian as both a durable and a revolutionary figure.
In an article criticizing the Chair of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, for her claim that children being raised in same sex families “(w)ill lead to the destruction of humanity,” Otrkrytye responds with “facts, not opinion.” By summarizing decades of psychological and medical research on the children of same-sex couples, the journal systematically undermines the claims of conservative leaders that same-sex couples should not have children. According to the article, research shows that children raised in same-sex families are just as happy as children raised in straight families. What’s more, these children are likely to be more tolerant of others and more in touch with a variety of erotic possibilities.
In an article about the representation of lesbians in cinema the author asks why contemporary lesbian films are so depressing. Using 2018 lesbian films The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Tell it to the Bees, the author concludes that lesbian cinema is so depressing because straight people cannot imagine lesbian existence in any other way. Since both of these films were aimed at “general” (that is, primarily straight) audiences they tell stories that both expose homophobia and also portray lesbian lives as unrelentingly grim
In contrast to the depressing nature of mainstream lesbian cinema, book publishing seems to offer more hope for the belief in lesbians. In an article about Popcorn Books, the only press in Russia that publishes LGBTQ-themed literature including Young Adult fiction (with books on their list like Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited Love, and Nina LaCour’s We are Okay),12 young lesbians in Russia can believe in future lesbian lives. Although all of their books say 18+ in order comply with the anti-gay propaganda law, Popcorn Books’ own research shows that about one in five of their readers is under 18. Often, LGBTQ youth ask their parents to buy them the books. As Markovich points out: “Now I look at those who are 15 or 16 years old, and I see how advanced they are. For them, LGBT is nothing secret nor some forbidden fruit… it is completely normal.”13 Certainly, lesbian existence for young adult readers is not unheard of and just that fact means we can believe in a lesbian future.
I believe in lesbians, despite the impossibility of lesbian existence in Russia today. Yet an insistence on this belief is not ignorant of LGBTQ realities. Lesbians and gay men in Russia face unrelenting and state-sponsored homophobia. As women, lesbians also face social and state sanctioned misogyny.
In July, St. Petersburg activist for LGBT rights, Elena Grigor’eva, was brutally murdered in front of her home. The murder took place after multiple threats and one physical attack against her, all of which were ignored by the police.14 Then in July Grigor’eva’s name and personal information were listed on a “kill” site where domestic terrorists are encouraged to murder LGBT persons.15
Her murder is a grim reminder that lesbian existence in Russia is in fact not possible. As Masha Gessen points out in an article on lesbians in Moscow, people stay because they convince themselves that “the country is still circling around the abyss rather than jumping in.”16 As many before me have pointed out, misogyny and homophobia are not incidental to Putin’s power. On the contrary, this sort of fascistic masculinity is how Putin managed to mobilize support and consolidate power. And yet there are lesbians in Russia.
In order to understand how this is possible, I want to turn to the rhetorical devices set forth in Afro-Pessimism and Afro-Futurism. I am in no way trying to compare lesbian existence within Putin’s Russia with Black existence in white supremacist countries like the US. Instead, I am imagining how we can use Afro-Pessimism and Afro-Futurism as theoretical interventions to understand how some lesbians might persist despite being denied the right to exist.
Within Afro-Pessimism, the black body is understood to reside outside the categories created by humanism. The black body is not a person, but a fungible object of violence, exchangeable with all other black bodies. Afro-Pessimism argues that the black body is not the same as the queer body, which, while still the object of violence, is also a category of personhood, of human existence.
Within Afro-Pessimism, “lesbian” would be a “marker of human difference” whereas “blackness” becomes a “fungible commodity… excluded from the realm of difference…”17
According to Charles P. Linscott, the existence of Black Lives Matter both reveals the truth of the impossibility of Black existence and also simultaneously insists on Black existence.
This is how Afro-Pessimism does not necessarily preclude the possibility of Black Optimism or Afro-Futurism. In fact, it is the very exclusion of Black from humanism that also makes Black optimism a “runaway optimism.” In a dialectical manner, it is the white supremacy that excludes the Black body from human categories that simultaneously creates its own destruction.18 White supremacy erases the matter of Black bodies even as it invites the creation of the BLM movement. In other words, it is possible to not just exist, but to live joyfully, even when your existence is not possible
This is where we can consider the existence of lesbian utopias in Putin’s Russia as both the thesis and the antithesis. Anti-queer and misogynistic regimes like Putin’s contain within them their own destruction. Belief in lesbians in Russia allows us to imagine that death is not the only possible outcome. In the same way that the Afro-Futurism of Black Panther is a bright rebuke to the grim reality of relentless police killings and mass incarceration of Black populations in the US, Russian lesbians who imagine their existence as utopian are where Russia’s structural homophobia and misogyny come to die.
Homo-pessimism might argue for the impossibility of queer existence in Russia today. Both Afro and homo-pessimism make sense as a response to the unrelenting violence, both state and individual, against Black bodies and the insistence, both state and individual, that LGBT persons be expelled from the Russian imaginary.
But the beauty of Afro-Futurism and believing in lesbians is that sometimes, when a group of people are thoroughly erased, they respond by insisting they be seen as gorgeous, shiny heroes. Believing in lesbian utopias in Putin’s Russia just might be the sort of political revolution that Black Lives Matter represents. Believing that lesbianism is a utopian and revolutionary identity and one that can exist in the grimmest spaces is just the sort of belief that can illuminate the darkness of the homo-pessimism of Russia. Not just an object of violence and disgust, the lesbian can also be a sort of runaway optimism that makes another world possible.
1. The Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” 1970. Accessed at: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/radicalesbianswoman.html
2 Julie Compton, “’Pro-lesbian’ or ‘trans-exclusionary’? Old animosities boil into public view,” NBC News, January 14, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/pro-lesbian-or-trans-exclusionar...
3 Julie Compton, “’Pro-lesbian or trans-exclusionary’? Old animosities boil into public view,” NBC News, January 14, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/pro-lesbian-or-trans-exclusionar...
4 Scott Allen and Des Bieler, “Megan Rapinoe to Trump: ‘Your message is excluding people,’” The Washington Post, July 10, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/09/megan-rapinoe-i-held-up...
5 Laurie Essig, Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self & the Other (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
6 Теория заговора против Росии, ВЦИОМ, 20 Августа 2018. Accessed at: https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=9259
7 “Transcript of interview with Vladimir Putin,” Financial Times, June 27,2019. Accessed at: https://www.ft.com/content/878d2344-98f0-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36
8 “No Support: Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law Imperils LGBT Youth,” Human Rights Watch, 2018. Accessed at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/12/11/no-support/russias-gay-propaganda-...
9 Alexander Kondakov, “the Censorship ‘Proganda’ Legilslation,” n ILGA: State Sponsored Homophobia, 2019. 13th Edition, p. 214. Accessed at: https://tuhat.helsinki.fi/ws/portalfiles/portal/123764815/ILGA_2019_Prop...
10 Квир Женщины Северного Кавказа, «Отчет по результатам качественного исследования насилия над лесбисками, бисексуальными и трансгендерными жнещинами на Северном Кавказе в Российской Федерации,» Москва 2018. Accessed at: https://www.outrightinternational.org/sites/default/files/Research-by-th...
11 I’ve changed all the names and some other identifying factors.
12 Popcorn Books, Products. Accessed at: https://vk.com/market-163729123
13 Istorii, July 10, 2019. «‘Единственное, что может плбедит гомофобию-это капитализм’: интервью с основательницами издательства Popcorn Books,» Otkrytye. Accessed at: https://o-zine.ru/popcorn-books/
14 Russian LGBT Network, “LGBTQ activist killed in St. Petersburg, Meduza, 22 July 2019. Accessed at: https://meduza.io/en/news/2019/07/22/lgbtq-activist-killed-in-st-petersb...
15 Tim Fitzsimmons, “Russian LGBTQ activist is killed after being listed on gay-hunting website,” NBC News, July 23, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/russian-lgbtq-activist-killed-af...
16 Masha Gessen, “How L.G.B.T. Couples in Russia Decide Whether to Leave the Country,” The New Yorker, June 11, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-lgbt-couples-in-russia...
17 Calvin Warren, “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay Nigger #1, and Surplus Violence,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 23, No. 3, 2017, pp. 392-393
18 Fred Moten, “The Subprime and the beautiful,” African Identities, Vol. 11, no. 2 (2013), p. 242.