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Column: Russia’s ‘Science’ of Sex Shapes Its Attitudes on Gays, Lesbians

Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in Russia, I was in a restaurant with some friends. The meal abruptly ended when we were escorted, at gunpoint, into a back room. The restaurateurs-cum-criminals wanted us to pay them a few hundred dollars or else they would inform our families and employers that we were “pederasts” and “dykes.”

Just a few short years before the fall of the Soviet Union, homosexuality could land you in the gulag or a psychiatric hospital. When we escaped that night, we did not report the incident to the police because there was no legal protection for Russia’s gays and lesbians.

Later, as Russia opened up to the more or less free exchange of ideas, goods and services, it was easy to imagine that life would get better for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. After all, how could a country with haute couture and organic food stores remain stubbornly anti-gay? How could a country with vibrant academic and activist communities not become more like the West in its attitudes toward sexuality?

No such luck. Russia is nearly as difficult a place to be gay today as it was under the Soviet regime.

Gay couples cannot adopt, nor can anyone from a country where same-sex marriage is legal adopt a Russian child. A new law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” makes it a crime to say anything positive to minors about homosexuality.

The anti-gay targeting has a populist streak as well. Ultra-nationalist groups such as Occupy Pedophilia lure young gay men with classified ads, threaten or brutally harass them, then circulate videos of the treatment on social media as a “lesson” to others. Members of the group say homosexuality is as morally reprehensible as pedophilia. At least one young man has apparently died from his injuries. Several more have committed suicide.

Americans, like Lenin before them, are left with the question: What is to be done? On top of the current tension between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, some U.S. activists are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Others are leading a boycott of Russian vodka. Even Lady Gaga is telling Russia’s LGBT community that “we will fight for your freedom.”

But it will take more than boycotts and pop stars to make the country more tolerant. Russia has a very different history of sexuality than the West does, and what is going on today is a result of that history.

In the West, homosexuality is now understood primarily as an unchangeable state of being. Whether we are “born that way” or became that way, the majority of people in the West do not consider gays to be “fixable.” As the French historian Michel Foucault put it, with modernity the homosexual transformed from a temporary aberration into a species. This change in thinking came in the late 1800s as a result of developments in biology and psychology, as well as changes in the law.

In Russia, in part because of the academic isolation of Stalininsm, science and the law went their own way. The homosexual was never “born” but rather learned behavior that could be “cured.” Russian science has always insisted that homosexuality is something that can be reoriented. When I was doing my research in the 1990s, I interviewed many sexologists who offered to change my sexuality; I even took a test at a medical center to find out just how gay I was. And I spoke with many lesbians who had been hospitalized in order to reorient their desire.

Medical “cures” for homosexuality in the 1990s included anti-psychotic drugs or hormone treatments. Some patients were put into a diabetic coma with the hope that they’d wake up and have changed their sexual preference. Women whose desire for other women could not be cured were often prescribed a sex change since, according to the logic of Russian psychiatry, they must really be men.

Although homosexuality ceased to be an official psychiatric illness in Russia in 1999, it remains a reason that many young women are committed to psychiatric institutions. I have been an expert witness in cases in which Russian lesbians are seeking political asylum, and a handful of women have cited forced hospitalization as the reason they want to leave the country.

Unlike “sick” lesbians who needed to be cured, men who desired other men were regarded as “criminals” who needed to be punished.

The Russian legal code, until President Boris Yeltsin overturned it in 1993, treated gay male relationships like bank robberies: a crime for which a man could serve time and then, presumably, be rehabilitated to a crime-free and straight life. Even men who didn’t end up with prison sentences were blackmailed by the police so that their employers and families would not be informed of their “crimes.”

These attitudes are evident in the West as well. Finding homosexual reparative therapy on the Web is almost as easy as finding a hook-up on Grindr. This year’s huge anti-gay-marriage demonstrations in Paris and deadly attacks on gay men in Manhattan remind us that we’re not living in a rainbow-filled gaytopia. However, the difference between Russia and much of the West lies in the majority. In the West, most people and most laws reflect some agreement that homosexuality is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

In contrast, Russian attitudes are built on more than 100 years of scientific and legal thinking that construes homosexuality as a temporary and treatable problem. Add to this a disturbing history of nationalism that has viewed queer sexual practices as “foreign” and “threats” to the Slavic soul. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, the Russian authorities allowed gangs of nationalist youths to beat up people coming out of gay dance clubs and to blackmail gays and lesbians. According to Russian gay and lesbian activists I’ve spoken to, something very similar is occurring today — even in central Moscow and other supposedly gay-friendly spaces.

My friends and I escaped a kidnapping nearly three decades ago only to face a moment that is depressingly similar. Whatever is done to help sexual minorities in Russia, it must be done with an understanding that sex in Russia has a very different history than it does in the West — and that history will continue to shape its future.

Laurie Essig, a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College, is the author of Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other.