MOSCOW—There are many brave free-thinkers in Russia but only one Straight Talk with Gay People, a thoughtful YouTube talk show by Karèn Shainyan, a Moscow-based editor and writer.
To encourage Russian celebrities to come out, Shainyan publishes interviews with the world’s leading LGBTQ artists, philosophers, actors, writers, and scientists, in a series of straightforward conversations.
He is a broad-chested man with big, intelligent eyes and a sincere smile. It is easy to open up to Shainyan—his interviewees reveal their most traumatizing, challenging stories of clashes with homophobes, and share personal ways of developing strong voices in their professional fields.
Shainyan, who is 39, has never kept his homosexuality a secret, which is unusual for a public person in Russia. His circle of friends, colleagues, and Moscow intellectuals embrace his talents and friendship. But back in his Siberian hometown of Irkutsk, Shainyan experienced humiliation—and fear is no stranger to him.
In spite of the horrific persecutions and violent attacks on LGBTQ people in Russia, Shainyan is a strong believer that there is hope to liberate people from fear through education. “Ignorance and indifference are the key reasons behind the worst homophobia,” he told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon. “Russian gay people, gay celebrities, are invisible. Nobody knows how they live, what they create, what they achieve as professionals, and how successful they are in their own country.”
Shainyan says that fear of losing prestige, money or access to a big audience were the reason no mainstream celebrities advocated for the victims of the anti-gay purges in Chechnya for instance, when a number of people were murdered and detained, and many tortured.
“To Russian celebrities coming out means a political message, a demand for having certain rights,” Shainyan told The Daily Beast. “But a public coming-out would mean an immediate huge loss of access to the concert halls.”
To make a difference and help to open minds, Shainyan traveled to the United States to speak to figures including stars like Cynthia Nixon and Billy Porter, author Garrard Conley, producer Bruce Cohen and Gideon Litchfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review.
More than one million people have viewed his blog on YouTube in less than three months. “The idea of the project is to attract the attention of a broader audience and expose all the existing myths around LGBTQ people,” Shainyan told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon.
“Since as soon as people hear the word ‘gay’ in the Russian media agenda, it always comes from two poles—either from homophobes and state propaganda calling to bring the Soviet criminal law back to the legislation or from LGBT activists, who use the word in the context of their fight, violated rights or clashes with police. These are two radical contexts, while in reality, several million Russian LGBTQ people are muted, they are not represented in the public space.”
Some have criticized him for only interviewing successful LGBTQ people, but Shainyan said he was not trying to “rehabilitate” the image of LGBTQ people in focusing on famous people. “That would be a very Soviet approach.”
Shainyan is single, and a gay parent of two boys, aged 9 and one-and-a-half, conceived with lesbian mothers. His older son lives with his mother in Kyiv. Before COVID-19 shut down the country, he traveled to see him once a month, and also brought him to Moscow for school breaks. When he started his blog earlier this year the mother of his older son asked Shainyan if it was safe for their son to come to Moscow.
She was not concerned about violence of homophobes so much as state agencies taking their son away. “Everybody is scared of the Russian juvenile justice system,” said Shainyan. “They cause the biggest fear for the entire Russian LGBTQ community. None of those with children can dare to be politically active, they are most vulnerable,” he told The Daily Beast.
Last year, Russia’s Investigative Committee started a lawsuit concerning two gay men, Andrey Erovfeyev and Andrey Vaganov, and their two adopted children. The family had to escape persecution by fleeing to the United States. “But in spite of the pressure, thousands of gay people continue to raise children in Russia,” said Shainyan. “I receive thank you notes from lesbian and gay couples, who have little children.”
A son of scientists and a biochemist by education, Shainyan has always been interested in the idea of education as a key to freedom. Misinformation and the distortion of history in Russian propaganda annoy him. “Unfortunately, Russians do not know their own history: homophobia is only 300 years old. Before Peter the Great began to execute homosexuals in the army, copying German punishment rules, gay people enjoyed rights in Russia,” Shainyan said.
Before the COVID-19 shutdown, Moscow’s LGBTQ population enjoyed bars, clubs and dating websites, not much different from what LGBTQ people have in the West, except that here the culture exists underground. Then international flights were cancelled, and LGBTQ people were worried about being able to escape the country if a new campaign of persecution began.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Levada Center, an independent polling agency, published new horrifying polls: 18 percent of Russians wanted to see LGBT people “liquidated.” Shainyan admitted that for a few seconds he felt “animal fear” upon seeing the figures.
Shainyan interviewed Levada’s sociologists about their study. It turned out that since 1989 the sociological center has been asking the same questions about pedophiles, murderers, and drug addicts (as if grouping LGBTQ people alongside these groups make any kind of sense). By “liquidating,” the sociologists told Shainyan, some people also meant social isolation.
Russia’s famous LGBTQ people know each other or of each other, but prefer to never speak publicly about the horrifying cases of homophobia.
Russia does not know exactly how many LGBT people it has, Shainyan said, “but if we apply the usual statistics, there might be up to 10 million lesbians, gay, transgender, queer or bisexual people in our country.”
The infamous anti-LGBTQ “propaganda” law of 2013 bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”; gay people are forbidden to marry, barred from adopting children or using surrogacy. Things are growing worse, according to Sova Center, a group monitoring hate crimes in Russia. The number of attacks on LGBTQ people increased last year.
“Oh, maybe this is something I really should consider”
Shainyan has been publishing articles in Russia’s best magazines and editing thoughtful political books, including the bestseller All the Kremlin’s Men.
Anna Shpakova, a photo curator and editor who worked with Shainyan on several projects in Moscow, says she understands why people open up to him. “Karèn creates a secure environment for you, he actually does care without pretense. I felt comfortable and safe when he was around, which is very important for the working environment,” Shpakova told The Daily Beast.
In his interviews, Shainyan makes the point that coming out was never easy even for the most outgoing American stars. Cynthia Nixon spoke about her transgender son, explained what gender issues meant to her, and how she had to consult a psychologist to understand herself better. Nixon is very popular in Russia; millions saw her in Sex in the City, which was broadcast on a much more tolerant media two decades ago.
Most Russian LGBTQ people who oppose the idea of coming out tell Shainyan: “Why should I come out of my comfort zone?”
Cohen makes the point in an interview for Shainyan’s blog, that coming out, on a personal and collective scale is politically powerful—a principle most famously voiced by LGBTQ rights icon Harvey Milk.
“Ten percent of Russians are LGBTQ, whether they like it or not; so when 1 percent is out, the 9 percent say, ‘What does it matter? This is such a small group anyway, how am I hurting anything?’ And then the more people come out, the more of a voice there is and the more change you can get done, the more other people, who aren’t out yet, start to think, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I really should consider.’”
During the COVID-19 shutdown I interviewed Shainyan in a courtyard of our neighborhood. He grabbed any available bar to do pull ups or very impressive leg lifts. Athletic Shainyan, a marathon runner, successfully beat the coronavirus after he was infected upon his return from New York in February.
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit Moscow hard, more than 150,000 people became sick with the virus. Shainyan became a blood donor. “Ironically, Russian gay people are not banned from donating blood, unlike in some countries, like America,” he said.
This is at least one right LGBTQ Russians are not deprived of, and Shainyan was one of the first Moscow residents to put it to use in the pandemic. It does not surprise his friends, who always thought of him as of a superman.