terre thaemlitz writings

Memories of St. Petersburg's Anti-LGBT-Education Law Going Into Effect
"Soulnessless" on March 24, 2012, at Save Festival, Arma 17, Moscow
- Terre Thaemlitz

March 27, 2012 (comatonse.com). Recounting my performance of "Soulnessless" in Moscow on the same day St. Petersburg's anti-LGBT-education law went into effect. It is my sincere hope that these comments do not cause embarassment or trouble for anyone involved.


On March 24, 2012, an anti-LGBT-education law - or anti-Homosexual propaganda law, as those who passed it describe it - went into effect in St. Petersburg, the cultural capitol of Russia. Although several major Western media sources mistakenly announced March 12 as the day the law went into effect, it was actually March 24. According to this law, it is now illegal to publicly discuss or educate on issues related to homosexuality, transgenderism, minority sexualities, and minority genders in the presence of minors. The lawmakers argue that it is intended to protect children from pedophiles and child pornographers - as though such people are one-and-the-same with educational advocates for gender- and sexual equality, youth counselors, etc. (Of course, religious conservatives and other repressed individuals are never pedophiles or involved in child pornography, right?) In effect, the law ensures that children with questions about gender and/or sexuality may only ask information from sexually repressed religious conservatives who have created the cultural climate of silence and misinformation giving rise to most of those very questions. One could argue the lawmakers' fear of children being subjected to homosexual and transgendered "recruitment" demonstrates an awareness of how their own views on "natural sexuality and gender" are the result of processes of indoctrination that could also be labeled recruitment. The law is worded vaguely so as to maximize its prosecutory applicability to the widest range of situations, while simultaneously exploiting peoples' own self-censorship based on their personal fears of what actions may or may not lead to prosecution.

In a bit of synchronicity, on this very day I was in Moscow attempting to perform the Russian translation of Soulnessless at the Save Festival, held in Arma 17. Before the show, a local friend told me about a group of feminists who were recently arrested and prosecuted in Moscow on charges of blasphemy after shouting prayers against Putin within the main Russian Orthodox cathedral. Given my own transgenderism and queerness, as well as my performance's overt themes of transgenderism, queerness, anti-religiosity and anti-spirituality, both my friend and I were a little uneasy. I found out later that we were not the only ones.

I began my performance with a short speech that went something as follows (paraphrasing from memory):

    When I was 13 or 14 years old, living in Missouri, I started subscribing to a Soviet propaganda magazine called "Soviet Life." The magazine was not particularly interesting - mostly photos and articles like one would find in a tourist guide. But at that time, in the extremely conservative area I lived in, there was still a degree of risk involved in having a communist magazine delivered to one's house. Of course, this was my real interest in the magazine, as a bit of anti-American teen rebellion.

    The area I lived in was controlled by right-wing religious fanatics. So the idea of there being a place in the world without religion appealed to me. In the US, everyone said the Soviet Union was that place. Although they said this in a derogatory way, in my young mind this was somehow an image of hope. Real or not, the notion that there were people out there aspiring to a society freed of religion was something I valued tremendously.

    Over thirty years have passed, and the Soviet Union is gone, but here I am, in Russia for the first time. I would love to say to you this moment feels like the fulfillment of some childhood dream. But I am heartbroken by the fact that today, in the city of St. Petersburg, a law made by conservative religious assholes went into effect which prohibits public discussion of transgendered and queer issues in the presence of minors. It is an anti-education law. It is a law that makes what I will show you here tonight illegal in St. Petersburg.

    Please, do all you can to help the people of St. Petersburg overturn this law. If the homophobia and transphobia escalate to a point where people need protection, help them get out of St. Petersburg. Help each other. I beg you.

At around 2:20AM, about fifteen minutes into Canto I "Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning," police ordered that all of the festival's three stages be shut down. In the hall where I was performing, this order came from the staff before the police ever entered the room. People stood in silence for a while. Then, literally in the blink of an eye, the room had emptied in a silent rush. Although I assumed the police were simply there due to a noise complaint - which is not uncommon in any country - I was definitely afraid of them finding me alone in that big room, dressed in women's clothes, standing next to a computer opened to blatantly queer and blasphemous materials. Given that police can always find a reason to arrest a person they don't like - legal or not - at that moment I was not concerned with why they were really there. I quickly unplugged my computer from the mixer and video projector, grabbed my bags, and began searching for familiar faces who led me to a back room. Although I personally never saw any police, when I later heard they were not your typical patrol cops, but the kind with black full-face masks, body armor and machine guns, I knew leaving the hall was the right decision.

One of the other musicians later told me that the first words out of the event organizer's mouth as the police entered were, "Maybe they're here because of what Sprinkles is doing!" Given the fact I was never questioned by police, this was clearly not the case. (I don't wish to spread rumors as to why the police were actually there. Suffice it to say they were most likely "the usual reasons" in that city.) However, the overheard reaction of the organizer testifies to the atmosphere that night. Although Moscow was some 632km (393mi.) away from St. Petersburg, well outside of the new law's jurisdiction, its effects were already being felt in the minds of those as far as Moscow. This is precisely how such laws work, fucking with peoples' heads. How tragic that, over all that time and distance from Missouri, what I found in Russia was just another land of people controlled by corrupt, right-wing, religious zealots.

To be sure, had I been scheduled to perform in St. Petersburg, I would have cancelled. Not only out of concern for myself, but for those responsible for bringing me. Guilt by association is a large part of anti-propaganda laws. They employ an essentialization of media content that parallels an essentialization of identity. For example, a gay friend who owns a record label said he was afraid to come out to anyone simply because this could eventually lead to his entire record label - which does not release overtly queer music - being branded as a gay propaganda machine even in the absence of clear gay content. From what I was told, this risk currently exists throughout Russia. Even in areas without laws similar to the one in St. Petersburg, people face social, business and financial troubles that make both business and daily life incredibly difficult for those who are "out." And there seems to be a general feeling that doing what is permitted today may come back to haunt you down the line.

The police left the building around 3:45AM, although they remained outside harassing people for quite some time. Meanwhile, the other performers and I returned to the stages. The audience had probably been reduced by half. Since I was only scheduled to play until 4:00AM, I decided to show Canto III "Pink Sisters," which is about fifteen minutes long. After that, with a few minutes to spare, I asked if the audience wished to see the ending of Canto I that had been disrupted earlier. The answer was yes. During that segment there was one person in the audience who was clearly offended by a particularly blesphamous image, and he began shouting at me. However, this did not detract from the appreciation of the rest of the crowd. As the next performer was ready to begin, I ended my performance without any audience Q&A. I returned later that morning, as scheduled, to DJ a house set of explicitly queer tracks a la Ms. Tony. The audience was definitely receptive.

By the way, on the day of my flight from Japan to Russia, my <begin sarcasm> favorite musician Madonna announced on Facebooktwittermyspacewhatevershit that she will speak out against the law during her upcoming show in St. Petersburg this fall. In fact, it is now impossible to do an internet search on "St. Petersburg anti-gay law" without getting page-after-page of hits about Madonna - which I think is great! You go, girl! She is so inspiring! I just pray to God that she can sell at least ten of her best audience seats, which go for 50,000 rubles ($1,700 USD) each, to cover the possible fines up to 500,000 rubles ($17,000 USD) faced by concert organizers. On top of that, she might personally be fined another 5,000 rubles ($170 USD). If she cannot sell ten of those concert seats, who knows what will become of her! In that case, let's all be ready to help her <end sarcasm> and the locals putting themselves in harm's way - not only financially, but socially and possibly for the long-term - to protest this unjust law prohibiting education on transgendered and queer issues. I worry about the social climate for the locals after her show is over. I wish them the best. Be safe.