Why Homophobic Russia Loves Gender-Bending Pop Stars

Recent laws and polls reveal an uptick in anti-gay sentiment, but paradoxically, Russians like their music acts as campy and flamboyant as possible.
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Russian singer Philip Kirkorov performs at the 2005 World Music Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on August 31, 2005. (Reuters)

In a 2012 rendition of his hit "Little Star," Boris Moiseev, a beloved 60-year-old Russian pop singer, takes the stage during an evening variety show in a characteristically bombastic outfit: sparkly sport-coat, beaded necklaces, magenta lipstick, and what can only be described as Princess Jasmine pants.

Backed by half-dressed dancers, he vamps his way through the dance hit, cocking his hips and waving his arms seductively.

Moiseev is an institution and a household favorite, even though he's openly homosexual and most of his performances are flamboyant even by the standards of a pride parade.

But this Russia, where only 16 percent of people say homosexuals should be accepted by society and where a new law aims to prevent publicly advocating "alternative" sexualities.

Meanwhile, Philip Kirkorov, a staple of seemingly every Russian "all star" compilation and concert, is not openly gay but he nonetheless generates much speculation with his amply applied, glamorous makeup and diva personality. After ending a brief marriage to an aging megastar named Alla Pugacheva, Russia's answer to Barbra Streisand, two years ago he had a baby with the help of an American surrogate.

Here's him singing a dance remix of the Jewish song Hava Nagila, wrapped in a fur shrug and with what appears to be the pelt of an entire yak on his head:

 

Russia has never been especially tolerant, but it has lately taken a turn toward outright ostracism of gays and bisexuals. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in fines of up to $31,000.

But whereas flamboyant artists might be marginalized in other, similarly conservative nations, Russians heartily embrace performers that embody anything other than the country's avowed heteronormative ideals. From Sergey Zverev, who sings decked out in long blond tresses and blush, to Zemfira, a fierce tomboy rumored to be having an affair with an actress, many of the country's most renowned musicians are (or appear to be) gay, bisexual, or cross-dressing.

Though few are formally out, their gender-bending mannerisms, as well as gossip about their true sexual identities, only seem to fuel their popularity.

"It adds to their theatricality," said Olga Partan, a Russian professor at the College of the Holy Cross. "They are flirting with the concept of enigma."

One theory holds that the success of such performers in Russia today is an extension of a type of dandyism that's been prevalent in Russian theater and music for centuries. Popular variety shows feature men (and women) who act out zany, satirical sketches, often with the help of puppets, miming, dancing, and the occasional use of drag for comedic effect.

The historic appreciation of these types of colorful displays, combined with Russians' love of ballet and opera, means effeminate or even drag performances aren't generally associated with homosexuality, explained Boris Dralyuk, a lecturer in Russian literature at UCLA.

In the comedy act, "Two New Russian Grandmas," two straight men don kerchiefs and dresses and mock dowdy babushkas night after night:

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Stephen Amico, a professor of music and media studies at the University of Amsterdam who is writing a book about homosexuality and Russian pop, said Russians in smaller cities have told him that they like the pizazz of gender-bending acts, which seem to brighten an otherwise dreary provincial existence. Older women in particular seem to love Moiseev for his emphasis on beauty and tenderness -- two aspects that were lacking in Soviet life.

Amico's personal theory, though, is that Russians simply need an outlet to escape the binary heterosexuality that's been imposed on them. The law says you can't promote gay rights, but you sure as heck can rock out to a indefatigable drag queen.

In fact, the mystique of the non-straight persona can be such a boon that in the past even heterosexual singers have acted gay in order to generate album sales.

The duo Tatu attained relative international fame in the early 2000s after their manager strategically marketed them as lesbians. Even their name is a double entendre that means "one is having sex with the other" in Russian.

The Russian language is incredibly thorough in its descriptions of gender. The sexes of the participants and subjects in a conversation determine how almost every word in every sentence -- noun, verb, and adjective -- is modified. If you're a woman writing a song about another woman, there's no hiding behind neutral pronouns.

Tatu used this to their advantage: The song "All the Things She Said," one of their few major English-language hits, was originally a Russian song called, "I Have Lost My Mind." The chorus included the lines, "I need her. I need her."

***

When they aren't staged, though, Russian stars' same-sex experiences are usually kept secret. Dana Heller, a professor at Old Dominion University who has studied sexuality in Russian music, says more often than not, the performers' orientations are feverishly hinted at in media reports but rarely stated outright.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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