When Putin Declared War on Gay Families, It Was Time for Mine to Leave Russia

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Aug. 26 2013 6:00 AM

When Putin Declared War on Gay Families, It Was Time for Mine to Leave Russia

Masha Gessen (center in white T-shirt) and other protestors outside the State Duma, in Moscow, on June 11, 2013.
Masha Gessen (center in white T-shirt) and other protesters outside the State Duma, in Moscow, on June 11, 2013.

Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

I stayed up nights trying to write this thing. Maybe it was going to be a Facebook post, or an open letter, or a column in a Russian magazine. Sometimes I thought it might be a speech or at least an extended toast—perhaps at my son's going-away party. But I never wrote it down or said it, except, over and over, in my mind.

I started drafting the first lines of this speech/column/toast at the end of 2012, when the Duma, the Russian parliament, was about to vote on a bill that would outlaw the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. At the radio station where I worked, I convened a meeting to discuss how we were going to cover this development. “They aren’t really going to pass it,” said one staffer, an experienced political reporter.

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“Watch them,” I said.

When I came home that evening, my son was practicing, and as I cooked dinner, I started work on the speech. “Do you hear that?” it began. “Do you think he would be playing the clarinet if he hadn’t been adopted by an American citizen?” It was a complicated argument. I am Russian, but I also have a U.S. passport, because I lived in the United States for a dozen years starting when I was a teenager. I was an AIDS reporter and an AIDS activist there, and after I returned to Russia in the early ’90s, I continued to write about AIDS. This was how I met Vova, who lived in an orphanage for the children of HIV-positive women, and adopted him. (He was negative.) At the time, no other Russian citizen would have adopted him, so great was the fear of AIDS, and so rare were adoptions generally.

It’s not that I think that subjecting your child to a decade of grueling music lessons is the best thing a parent can do. It's just that when Vova was 3, he didn’t talk. He responded to speech unreliably. It was frustrating for all of us. But could he ever dance. And sing. And spend hours with his cassette player. Music was his language, and music lessons gave him the ability to communicate—and the confidence to do so. In the end, music was also how he learned to speak. At some point, I had the inspiration to buy lots of contemporary Russian pop and rock and start playing it in the house. Within days, Vova was speaking to us, using whole phrases borrowed from the songs.

Now he was practicing for auditions at American high schools. We had discussed the idea of a boarding school in the United States—there are a couple of specialist schools that offer musical training that not only is better but is also much less sadistic than what he would get in a similar high school in Russia. Last summer, he went to summer camp at one of those schools and got religion: I hadn’t had to remind him to practice all fall. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have him suddenly living so far away, and I suspected that he couldn’t quite picture it either, but we reassured each other that he would come back for three full months in the summer and a month in the winter, and that the semesters in between would be broken up, too. He would be spending five months of the year at home, able to play with his dog and fight with his sister.

The auditions were in late January. I continued to draft my op-ed in a hotel room as I ironed his audition shirt. Vova had already been offered admission and a merit scholarship at one of the schools. The Russian parliament, meanwhile, voted for a law banning “homosexual propaganda,” which was defined as the “dissemination of information that may harm the spiritual or physical development of minors, including forming in them the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations.” I had been disseminating that sort of information in front of the minors in my own home for more than a dozen years. Some of my friends had gone to protest in front of the Duma, and some of them had been badly beaten. One of my closest friends, a straight man, was videotaped debating a Russian Orthodox activist. The following day, he was fired from his job teaching biology at a Moscow high school.

“Do you know what playing the clarinet involves?” my open letter, or whatever it was by now, asked. By the age of 4, Vova was speaking, but no one except my girlfriend and me could understand what he was trying to say. I took him to a speech therapist, who said his facial muscles were partially paralyzed: He literally could not form the sounds he needed to produce comprehensible speech. She prescribed exercises and tongue-and-cheek massage. My girlfriend learned to do the massage and did it twice a day, and Vova did a facial-muscle workout three or four times a day. And now he plays the clarinet, an instrument that requires supreme control of the facial muscles.

The “homosexual propaganda” law and the ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens were of a piece. These bills came from the same place as the law on “foreign agents,” which severely restricted the activities of NGOs that receive funding from abroad, and changes to the laws on espionage and high treason, which, last fall, essentially brought back language from the 1930s. In Russia, you can now accuse anyone of espionage or treason for doing just about anything.

Here’s how all this came about: When more than 100,000 Russians came out to protest rigged elections in December 2011, Vladimir Putin looked at them and saw the Enemy. In Putin's mind, anyone who opposes his rule opposes Russia itself. So the protesters must have been foreigners, or, if not, they had to be The Other. Early on, he accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having personally inspired the protests. A few months later, this idea of The Other turned into the laws on foreign agents and espionage and into the ban on American adoptions--and eventually into the law on “homosexual propaganda,” for no one represents Western influence and otherness better than gays and lesbians.

To mobilize his shrinking constituency, Putin needed a war, so he declared one. But to fight a war, you need not only to identify an enemy, you must also paint that enemy as both dangerous and less than human. Patriarch Cyrill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has proclaimed that the international trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage is a sign of the coming apocalypse; that sort of rhetoric establishes imminent danger. In an April 2012 video that has recently gone viral, the deputy head of the Kremlin's propaganda machine screams that when gay men die in car accidents, their hearts should be burned or buried deep underground, lest they be transplanted into a human being. This establishes that we are less than human.

“The Americans want to adopt Russian children and bring them up in perverted families like Masha Gessen's,” said St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, bringing together homosexual propaganda, adoptions, and foreign agents quite nicely. He said this in an interview with the country's largest tabloid in late March, when scholarship offers started to come in from the three schools where Vova had auditioned. My mental blog post was starting to sound desperate. “He isn’t coming back,” I would say, shaking my fist. At this point, it was clear that he really wouldn’t be coming back, not even for vacations. In the new political and cultural reality, a court would easily decide to annul Vova's adoption, and I wouldn't even know it.

Vova left Russia in June. That same month, the ban on “homosexual propaganda” became law, the parliament banned adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal, and the head of the parliamentary committee on the family pledged to pass a bill that would create mechanisms for removing children from same-sex families. That would include biological children. So that same month, we put our Moscow apartment on the market, and in August we began house hunting in New York.

In a week’s time, Vova will be installed at his boarding school, so I have been trying to be a better mother in our last few days together. I even managed to stay quiet when he got in the car wearing his headphones. I was rewarded for my angelic patience with an opportunity to showcase it even more: Vova offered to plug his iPhone into the car's sound system. It turned out to be a surprisingly palatable playlist, with lots of Nina Simone, the Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, and other musicians whose voices I recognized.

“Now you’re going to hear my song,” said Vova, and a Russian song called “A City That Doesn't Exist” came on. He sang along the entire time—he has that teenage voice thing, when he’s already singing in a baritone but it sounds like his voice could crack at any minute, but it doesn’t. He sang, “In the distance I see a city that doesn't exist/ Where a wanderer can find refuge/ Where I an remembered and wanted/ Day after day, getting lost at times/ I am going to the city that doesn't exist.”

I felt a sudden urge to redraft my semi-abandoned open letter. But then the grand finale of Vova's playlist started up, and I remembered the day, a Saturday about five years ago, when I declared a cleaning blitz at our dacha and blasted this song. Vova ran out of his room screaming, “What is this?” and we danced to it, and then we put it on a loop and danced to it again and again, and he told me I couldn't dance. It was “It's Raining Men.” We rolled down the windows and enjoyed ourselves some homosexual propaganda.

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