Author: Olga Andreevskikh, Tampere University, Finland
In contemporary Russia, where state-imposed ‘traditional sexuality’ legislation co-exists with the continuously strengthening LGBTQ-rights movement, with prolific media discourses on LGBTQ themes, as well as with a rich and diverse queer cultural scene, identity-based categories belonging to the western discourses of ‘coming-out’ (e.g. gay, lesbian, bisexual, and so on) tend to be problematic. While Russian LGBTQ people are often deprived of the opportunity to be publicly open about their sexuality, they nevertheless have the right to express their sexual and gender identity in a way different from heteronormative norms. Therefore, the use of such a fluid and elusive term as kvir (queer) has a potential to serve not only as a means of decolonising LGBTQ discourses, but also as a source of empowerment, a new way for non-heteronormative people to exist without attempting a risky act of coming-out and without labelling themselves as part of the Stonewall-inspired identity-bound LGBT community. Using the examples provided by several LGBTQ Russian media outlets, I discuss what venues of appropriating the term ‘queer’ currently exist amongst Russian LGBTQ people.
In Russian LGBTQ media, the word ‘queer’ (kvir) first became publicly visible and commonly recognised with the launch of the eponymous magazine Kvir in 2003. The print version of the magazine existed until 2013. Currently, Kvir is available as an online magazine on the website kvir.ru. Since 2013, new content has been published online only. In terms of content authorship, the magazine has had collaborations with multiple celebrity authors, artists, and experts, including fashion historian Alexandr Vassiliev and New-York-based photographer, artist, writer and activist Iaroslav (Slava) Mogutin. Thematically, the magazine publishes highly diverse and rich content, ranging from queer art and homoerotic photos to analytical texts on homosexuality to book and film reviews. The ways in which the term kvir tends to be used in the content of the magazine is defined by the very genre of this media outlet, i.e. a gay lifestyle magazine, which oscillates thematically towards ‘easy reading’ topics, such as love stories, fashion, night life, popular culture.
A slightly different approach to appropriating the term ‘queer’ has been taken by the news and entertainment portal Parni PLUS (parniplus.com), produced by a LGBTQ team for LGBTQ audiences and HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) since 2008. The term tends to be used as a synonym for the abbreviation ‘LGBT’, most often – as a synonym for male homosexuality. The term ‘kvir’ often collocates with such words as ‘advertising’, ‘blogger’, ‘cinema’, ‘film’, ‘series’, ‘artist’, ‘party’, ‘history’, ‘community’ (e.g., kvir-motivy v sovetskom kino, kvir-serial, kvir-vecherinka).
Catering for rather wide audiences in terms of age, background, sexual and gender identities, the web portal Parni PLUS competes for younger LGBTQ readers with the online magazine Otkrytye, which was launched in 2018 and operated until October 2021. Unlike the previously analysed outlets which position themselves as gay or LGBT media resources, the O-zine from the very start declared itself as a magazine dedicated to the ‘Russian queer’ (Rossiiskii kvir). Similarly to Kvir and Parni PLUS, the O-zine content also represents the usage of ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for LGBT communities. However, when it comes to the collocations with culture or media specific terms, the O-zine content demonstrates a much greater variety of options. The analysis of available content pieces and the keyword search for texts linked to the term return such results as ‘your queer horoscope’ (vash kvir-goroskop), ‘queer albums’ (kvir-al’bomy), ‘queer hip-hop’ (kvirnyi khip-khop), which places the O-zine approach to the usage of the term kvir even further towards materialistic mass culture and neoliberal cultural consumption.
An approach to the mediation of kvir similar to that of the O-zine is employed by prominent Russian journalist and activist Karen Shainian. At the time of this paper being finalised, his YouTube project ‘Straight Talk with Gay People (Otrkrytyi razgovor s veselymi liud’mi)’ had over 109,000 subscribers. According to the project description, from its launch in January 2020, its focus has been on personal narratives of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who are famous or well-known both in Russia and beyond. Putting into spotlight primarily privileged white upper- and middle-class LGBTQ people who have enough resources to be publicly open about their gender identity and sexual orientation, and mediating the so-called ‘queer culture’ as a phenomenon synonymous with, if not identical to what is usually referred to as gay culture and gay lifestyle (i.e., gay clubs, exclusive gay and lesbian parties, pride parades which tend to be accessible and affordable primarily to privileged people located in affluent urban spaces in the West), Shainian’s content also increases the visibility of LGBTQ-rights activists past and present, as well as makes attempts at analysing the mechanisms of discrimination through a decolonial perspective. Shainian’s approach to the concept of kvir thus demonstrates, on the one hand, the influence of the neoliberal trend of the commodification of mediated and mediatised non-heteronormative identities, and on the other – a complex understanding of the queer continuum.
Deprived of the connotations and meanings which this term has in Anglophone communities, who all recognise its origins as a homophobic term reclaimed by LGBTQ people, in Russia, the term kvir has so far been discursively linked with the neoliberal commodification of mediatised and mediated cultural prosumers. The advent of new media sped up the processes of establishing transnational media connections. In turn, this meant that, in, which resulted in the fact that in contemporary Russia, the term kvir tends to reflect the desire and attempts of certain groups of Russian cultural consumers to be included into global (i.e., western) discourses on LGBTQ lifestyles and culture. This might explain the current tendency of linking the term ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ with an easy(ier) and wide(er) access to western cultural products, which, in its turn, is closely connected to the categories of social class and to the spatial and material factors conditioning one’s lived experiences, rather than making use of the decolonial and deconstructive power of ‘queer’ to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ people who are on the margins of the dominating cis-het — gay and lesbian — discourses.