A gay old time? Social media lessons from Russia


As the Winter Olympics in Sochi draw to a close, a brief survey of trending topics across social media and international press reveal some entertaining and frightening contradictions on the slippery slopes of privacy, politics and disruptive sexuality.

The ramifications of challenging the established order are evident in brutal images of gay men beaten by neo-Nazis and Pussy Riot members being horsewhipped by cossacks.

With the introduction of the “anti-propaganda bill” in June last year, Russian president Putin not only banned discussion of “non-traditional sexual relations” with minors, he amplified the voices of an already homophobic population and further stigmatised many vulnerable young people.

The risks of sharing any expression of sexuality increased, and surveillance of those self-representations heightened – both online and face-to-face. Tensions between Western and Eastern moralities have also become more evident, along with divergent understandings of identity and privacy.

When Blondie boycotted the opening ceremony, “faux-lesbian” Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. performed instead, despite being on record claiming that Putin’s bill is weird because “a lot of people from the government with the big positions are gay”.

Meanwhile, openly gay American medal-winning ice-skater, commentator and fashion icon Johnny Weir was criticised for not boycotting the Olympics and decrying gay activists. He later apologised and proclaimed his love of all things Russian (particularly his Russian husband) with

there is no excuse to hurl insults at those who oppose you, or those who think differently than you and as a believer in free will and free speech, I allowed my own fear and emotion to get the better of me.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion sponsored a cheeky commercial which looped footage of two men clad in skin tight black luge outfits thrusting suggestively, accompanied by the tagline: “The games have always been a little bit gay. Let’s fight to keep them that way.”

Later, with the games in full swing, Canadian bobsledder Justin Kripps posted a picture on his own website of his bobsled team in their underwear only to receive the error message:

Dear users: We are very sorry, but access to the requested content is forbidden because of a law or decision by the lawmakers of the Russian federation

So far one might be forgiven for thinking what we are witnessing is the not-so-dangerous conflation of ironic cultural inconsistencies into a mixed message on where and when it is acceptable to be gay. These messages, whether from government representatives, ad agencies, pop icons or individual selfies are invariably mediated by digital platforms.

Smile for the camera

Sometimes a message delivered personally to a small audience is picked up and distributed to a larger unknown public. Individuals do not have control over how their image is received by an audience.

This is evident in international coverage of Mayak (or “Lighthouse”), one of the few gay nightclubs in Sochi and a popular venue for foreign journalists seeking vibrant local commentary on gay life in Russia – but their presence is not always welcome.

One man who didn’t know he was being filmed was shocked to find that his drunken birthday dance was included in an American news segment.

In a country where it is clearly not acceptable to be gay, breaches of privacy like this have resulted in street violence, job losses, family breakdown and in some cases murder.

The bad and the good

VKontakte (VK), the second biggest social network service in Europe following Facebook, hosts hundreds of active homophobic groups with Occupy Pedofilyay reputedly the largest with 75,000 followers. Translated as Occupy Pedophilia this loose collective of neo-Nazis and Russian nationalists use social media to publicly humiliate gay men and boys by:

1. luring people (sometimes by posing as prospective dates) into violent physical encounters
2. distributing triumphant images of those encounters.

Social network platforms can obviously accommodate both sides of any debate and groups like Deti-404, established by 17-year-old Lena Klimova, provide support for young LGBT people who struggle to stay safe in their daily physical environments.

The Deti-404 site plays on the Error 404 – page not found warning and has the motto “Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!”. While this apparently private space has no doubt played a pivotal role in offering hope to a socially maligned group, it remains only as safe as its membership.

Illusion of privacy

Sharing private concerns can have very public consequences when trust is breached – either by reporters, other members of “safe” places, or by digital platforms and technologies. Surveillance – being watched or scrutinised – takes many forms.

Last week more than 72,000 members of a Russian Grindr-style phone app received messages saying

You will be arrested and jailed for gay propaganda in Sochi according to Russian Federal Law 135 Sektion 6

While this act of terror has been attributed to hackers, some suspect official collusion. Meanwhile over in the Ukraine, thousands of protesters received a message on their mobiles: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

The New York Times reports that geolocation technology was used to track phones in, or near, the site of a protest (regardless of whether the phone’s owner was actually involved).

The slippery slope of privacy, with intimate sharing of secrets on the one hand and mass surveillance and invasion of personal freedoms on the other, remains as tricky as an Olympic slalom.

Just as Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, while we like to think we can moderate our performances for front stage (public) and back stage (private) audiences, we cannot guarantee what an audience makes of us.

In modern networked life, where we are simultaneously online and in our bodies, social understandings of privacy continue to evolve, determined by collectively (but not unanimously) agreed “definitions of the situation”.

Moral codes of conduct – where and when it’s acceptable to be gay or not; in public, in private, or not – are just as fluid as performances of identity have always been. Messages, mediated by people or platforms, are open to interpretation, whether face-to-face or online.