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.
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:
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.
"Their sexuality is an 'open secret,'" she said in an email. "Kirkorov married Alla Pugacheva in what was clearly a business partnership more than a romantic relationship, and it served the additional function of providing cover for him -- the appearance of normalcy. And the illusion means that Russians don't have to worry about reconciling their appreciation for these performers with the culture's homophobia because there is no contradiction for them, so long as LGBT performers keep their orientation to themselves."
Partan points out that rumors about singers' sexualities remain just that -- "Nobody is openly saying, 'well, you know, this is who I am, I'm gay.'"
When it behooves them, the artists use the controversy to drive interest. But if any serious criticism surfaces, they are quick to sidestep the issue.
"They play with it as much as they possibly can," said Amico. "Moiseev [the openly gay performer] is the master of this. He gave an interview in the Russian version of Rolling Stone, where he said, essentially, 'gay, shmay, this is all bullshit.'"
And the moment someone claims to resolve the mystery for good, the fun of speculation evaporates -- and the shock sets in.
Earlier this year, a Russian actor named Nikita Dzhigurda took to a talk show to "reveal" the sexual orientations of several prominent pop stars, including Kirkorov, Moiseev, and Dima Bilan, an effeminate heart-throb who won the 2008 Eurovision song contest. Dzhigurda ended his rant with an angry warning: "Come out! Come out from below ground -- before it's too late!"
At the mention of Bilan's name, the female host exclaimed, "You're breaking my heart!"
Another woman on the show refused to believe it.
"Russians have terrible gaydar," Dralyuk explained.
Though they continue to be adored by most, some LGBTQ stars have recently become the targets of slurs.
A site on the Russian social network VKontakte calls Moiseev a fag and advocates raping him. YouTube videos of his songs are littered with homophobic comments.
In 2002, the band Ruki Vverh released the song "On Teba Tseluyet," or "He Kisses You." It's an otherwise unremarkable Ace of Base-style track about pining for an old flame who has moved on.
"He kisses you, tells you he loves you. At night he hugs you, presses you to his chest. But I am tortured by pain ..."
Those who simply heard the song would be forgiven for thinking it was about a heterosexual relationship, as the gender-modified verbs and adjectives imply. But, oddly, the song's video consists of images of a man applying makeup interspersed with footage of another man and a blond woman frolicking in parks and caressing each other. But at the end, the blond woman rips off her wig and reveals herself to be the makeup-applying man.
Predictably, the video's YouTube comments don't quite match the song's acclaim at the time.
"Who is the pervert who is painting himself?" wrote one commenter in Russian.
"Shut your mouth, you abomination," wrote another.
Dralyuk and others say it's possible the reception for Russia's more flamboyant stars will grow less friendly as homophobic sentiment there escalates.
Verka Serduchka, a Ukrainian drag queen who dances in long, sequin dresses and outlandish headgear, reportedly recently lost a singing contract with a Russian variety show because producers worried he might be advocating "non-traditional relationships."
Late last year, Kirkorov, along with Bilan and some 300 other celebrities signed a letter to Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov criticizing the ban on "gay propaganda," which at that point was just a municipal law in St. Petersburg.
"There was no other person in the history of St. Petersburg to have disgraced the city throughout the world in such a short period of time," the letter said of Milonov.
Milonov scoffed at the accusation, saying:
"Kirkorov's support would have done more harm to me [than his criticism does]."
Still, the country's contradictory perspective toward homosexuality on stage and screen is at times mind-boggling.
In January, the journalist Anton Krasovsky announced he was gay while hosting a show on a Kremlin-funded internet news network.
"I am gay, and I am a human being just like Putin and Medvedev," he said.
He was fired immediately.
Meanwhile, campy singer Valery Leontiev performed a one-hour concert at the State Kremlin Palace last year in a bespangled, skin-tight leather bodysuit.
In 2000, Moiseev performed "Little Star" during a concert that aired on Russian state TV to raucous applause.
He was wearing a skirt.
"Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone," Partan said.