All of Anton Krasovsky’s friends and colleagues knew he was gay. But when he announced it on live television, it caused a sensation. The presenter, who had made a successful career on state television channels before being appointed editor-in-chief of a new Kremlin-funded internet broadcaster, was no marginalised liberal; he was very much part of the system. But with his words, he had crossed a red line.
“I am gay, and I am a human being just like Putin and Medvedev,” he said to the cameras, referring to Russia’s President and Prime Minister. In the context of Russian public life, it was a revolutionary statement. He was fired immediately, and all references to him were removed from the channel’s website.
“I have made a lot of money in television and I understood that I’d lose everything,” he recalls over coffee, months later. He is currently unemployed. “But I also understood that I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t do it so that I would get hundreds of likes on my Facebook page. I did it because I wanted them to hear it in the Kremlin. And they heard it, and were surprised.”
The Russian parliament is preparing to pass a bill that would outlaw “homosexual propaganda”, which has prompted fears of a rise in homophobic violence, in a society that already has little tolerance of gay people.
Last week, a 23-year-old man was found dead in Volgograd, apparently attacked by two men he had told he was gay. He had been beaten up, sodomised with bottles, and had his genitals mutilated.
In this climate, the lack of gay people in public life is becoming more acutely felt. There are almost no openly gay figures in the worlds of entertainment, sport and politics.
Many popular singers and entertainers make little effort to hide their sexuality from friends and colleagues but “coming out” to the broader Russian population would be unthinkable. Surveys show that 80 per cent of Russians believe homosexuals should hide their true sexual orientation, and many Russian gays are used to living a double life, sometimes for decades.
But according to some activists, the controversial “homosexual propaganda” law – which has already been passed in 10 Russian regions and looks likely to be implemented nationwide by Russia’s parliament this spring – may not have the effect intended by its conservative backers.
“The law has had an interesting effect on the gay community,” says Igor Kochetkov, one of the country’s leading gay-rights activists. “On the one hand it has made a lot of people scared, and more inclined to hide. But on the other hand, it is so absurd it has forced a lot of people to become more active in defending their rights.”
According to Mr Kochetkov, there is a chance the law could prompt a whole wave of well-known Russians to come out and declare their sexuality.
Mr Krasovsky claims there is very little “real homophobia” in Russia, and suggests his dismissal was as much to do with his words about Vladimir Putin as it was about coming out. He says the reason more gay public figures are not open about their sexuality is that they are “idiots” and “cowards”, though he does admit that many are scared.
“Look at most Jews in the Soviet Union, they entered in the ethnicity field on their passports that they were Russians,” he says. “But in the field of entertainment, would singers really lose popularity if they came out and said they were gay? They would only gain more respect.”
Surveys do not necessarily back his argument. While Mr Krasovsky’s world of television in Moscow is fairly tolerant, Russia at large remains extremely homophobic, as attacks such as the recent case in Volgograd illustrate all too gruesomely. A recent poll found that only 16 per cent of Russians thought homosexuality was “natural”. More than half think gays need “treatment”.
Peter Tatchell, a veteran British rights campaigner, suffered brain and eye damage when he was beaten up at a banned Moscow Gay Pride march in 2007. He says current levels of homophobia in Russia make life a living nightmare for many gay people, who are terrified of coming out for fear of losing their jobs or being attacked.
“For people in Britain it is difficult to imagine how homophobic Russian society really is,” says Mr Tatchell. “It’s even worse than Britain in the 1950s.”
However, Mr Tatchell agrees that if well-known Russians begin to come out, there could be a serious change in attitudes. “Experience all over the world is that coming out has a huge positive impact on public perceptions of homosexuality,” he says. “People who know a gay person are much more likely to support gay equality.”
Mr Kochetkov’s theory that the law could trigger a more mature public discussion appears to have been borne out by recent features in Russian magazines focusing on the issue.
The Moscow weekly Afisha devoted an issue to 27 people in different walks of life, all of whom are gay, and many of whom were coming out for the first time. Perhaps the most striking story was that of Alexander Smirnov, an official in the Moscow city government.
He said he had been hiding his sexuality for years, but had decided enough was enough. “If someone at work makes jokes about faggots, I smile like an idiot,” he told the magazine. “I even make an effort not to look at good-looking men for too long. I’m used to this self-control since my childhood, but it means a permanent internal stress, and a double life that can send you crazy.”
His story contained details of a horrific encounter. A man who posed as an interested suitor on a dating website brutally beat up Mr Smirnov in his home and robbed him.
The man, apparently, was taking revenge for the fact his brother was gay. Mr Smirnov was too ashamed to call the police. He said he was aware his public “coming out” in a magazine could mean losing friends or being fired, but he was willing to do it anyway.
“I’m 39 and society is still telling me my place. I don’t like it when people tell me how to live, or accuse me of being guilty of something,” he says. “I want to stand up and say this won’t happen anymore.”
For a public official, Mr Smirnov’s public declaration of his homosexuality is unprecedented. Gossip is rife about gay intrigue even at the top levels of Mr Putin’s government, but no official has ever come out.
Russia, by the law of averages, is likely to have more than 10 million gays and lesbians, and yet almost no public figures have come out.
Mr Kochetkov admits that the way Mr Putin’s government is run, and in the current ideological climate, the chances of a minister coming out are almost zero. But, he says, if even a few celebrities came out, it could have a huge effect on Russian society.
“For the majority of Russians, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are abstract concepts that have been imbued with a number of negative connotations through media and public rhetoric,” he says.
“If people associate them with real people, then attitudes change quickly. People who actually know gay people are much less likely to be homophobic.”