Sergei Volkov on Being a Teacher in Russia after the Anti-Gay Law

In the Zone of Silence
How to talk with teens after passage of the law banning gay propaganda
Sergei Volkov
New Times
June 17, 2013

On June 11, the State Duma passed in its third reading a law banning promotion of homosexuality. Complex problems are being driven underground, where teenagers will be left one on one with their questions.

The law banning “gay propaganda” has passed. And although the much broader notion of “non-traditional sexual relations” figures in its wording, this is exactly how it will be referred to for short.

What does the law have to do with me, the father of a quite traditional family (from the viewpoint of the people who drafted the law)? Everything. I’m a schoolteacher. I’m a university lecturer. I’m the editor of a journal for teachers and university lecturers. I’m a member of the Public Chamber. And more than two thousand people, including teenagers, read my Facebook page. When I say or write something, it ceases to be private: with the right will, it can be regarded as propaganda. You see, I’m already one small step closer to falling under this law. Also, I mainly work with teenagers, with minors and with people who work with them. That’s another small step. And I’d like to clear up some of the law’s nuances so as not to fall into its trap.

The law says that dissemination of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual attitudes among children, presenting non-traditional sexual relations as attractive, giving a distorted view of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relations, or imposing information that provokes interest in such relations will be considered “promotion” [or “propaganda”] and as such deemed punishable. Okay.

Does this mean that if I consider a pupil with a non-traditional sexual orientation (I have had experience with such pupils, and, as I know firsthand, so have many other educators) normal and want him to realize himself in the future as he likes, I’m coming dangerously close to breaking the law? I still haven’t engaged in propaganda, but in my own mind I think of this person as ordinary and “legal,” and I think the same thing about the relations he will have with other people like him. I haven’t opened my mouth yet, but I’m no longer so pure before the law.

And if I do open my mouth—because, for example, a pupil comes to have a heart to heart talk with me (I’ve had experience with such conversations, like many other educators, believe you me) or sends a message to my inbox or shares his problems in an essay? Should I tell him what I think or should I tell him what the law requires? The law requires I don’t give a distorted view of the equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relations. So if a female pupil comes to talk to me about her sufferings over a boy, I can hear her out, comfort her, and give her advice. But what if the sufferings of another female pupil are over a girl? Do I have to tell her it’s disgusting and perverted? If I talk to her and comfort her the way I did the first female pupil, will I thus be affirming the equivalence of such relations? Will that come under the law? Or will it not be considered propaganda because it’s one on one, not intentional or systematic?

But what if the conversation happens in the classroom—because, for example, I need to intervene in a conflict involving a student who is “different,” or because we’re discussing a book, a film, an incident, or the law itself? (Teenagers aren’t blind: many of them are interested in politics and what is happening in society.) Or, say, what if I’m asked about the project Children 404, a Facebook page where children of non-traditional orientation talk about what it is like for them in the adult world, a world of homophobes? In these cases, I’ll have to talk in public. So what? What should I say? Or should I hand them the text of the law while shaking my head and mumbling something unintelligible by way of saying, “You see, I can’t do it: the fines are so steep. What if someone suddenly takes what I say the wrong way or files a complaint? You can’t be too cautious”?

Or, for example, the publisher Samokat has just released the book Fool’s Cap, by Darya Wilke. It’s a poignant and beautifully written book about a boy who lives in a puppet theater (his parents are actors), a book about the world of theatrical workshops, a book about puppets—and a book about love. The boy becomes aware of his unconventionality, his sexual specialness. And so as not to be found out he pretends by playing the role of jester, which is his favorite puppet. He gradually grows up emotionally and realizes a jester is not someone who plays the fool, lets everyone take a whack at him, and hides under the fool’s cap. Real jesters are freer and stronger than kings. So he decides to do his own little coming out. And he wins.

I often tell teenagers about new books, because we read a lot of stuff that is not on the curriculum. I want to tell them, among other things, about this book as well. But will I be able to do it now without fear of being accused of gay propaganda? What guarantee is there that some parent won’t come running into the school screaming that their child has had a book about “faggots” rammed down his throat? The parent won’t even bother to open the book, but he will be certain I’ve committed a crime just by introducing it to my students. Remember how quickly parental opinion turned against Ilya Kolmanovsky: they demanded their children be protected from a gay teacher, who wasn’t really gay but had only gone to the State Duma to support the protest against passage of the law and explain to people that if a person is homosexual, they are that way by nature. Of course, not all parents were against Kolmanovsky, only a minority, but in our business one unhinged parent is enough to ruin a teacher and a school forever. Believe me when I say I know what I’m talking about.

The law has been passed, but the controversy over it has not died down. I’ve noticed that problems not addressed by the law often get mixed up into the debate. For example, can a same-sex couple be considered a family? Can the marriage be registered, or must the union be tagged with a different label? Can same-sex couples adopt children? These issues are exacerbated by the fact that such things are more and more permitted in Europe. For many, this is a sign it’s time we in Russia should ban these things. Unfortunately, the confusion and tension around these issues makes it impossible to get to the bottom of them.

Aggression comes pouring out of many people when discussing same-sex relationships (and the new law in particular), revealing an inner fear. Talking through the problem could be a remedy for fear, but the law drives it into the zone of silence and presents people working with adolescents with a difficult choice.

Silence is detrimental to teenagers who have discovered their own specialness. They need to talk about it with someone. I am very grateful to my fellow educators who replied to my question on Facebook by writing that nothing would change for them after passage of the law and that as before they would try and help any pupil with any problem, because all pupils are equal to them.

My last point has to do with the fact that homophobically minded people make the following move as one of the strongest arguments in their favor. They ask whether I would want my own son to be seduced by a gay. My answer is that I don’t want my son to be seduced, and it doesn’t matter whether the seducer is a woman or a man. I would want my son to figure out what he wanted, and for things to happen as they should, the way he wants. Or the way he wants with the person or persons with whom they’re going to happen. And I want for him to know that I’m ready at any moment to talk with him and accept him. And that there are other adults ready to do the same.

What I very much do not want is for him to break himself to satisfy the majority and its laws and not have the chance to be himself, or for him to be left without help by people who could give him help but prefer to keep quiet on pain of punishment.

Sergei Volkov teaches Russian language and literature at School No. 57 in Moscow. He is also editor-in-chief of the journal Literature, an associate professor of philology at the Higher School of Economics, a lecturer at the Moscow Art Theater Studio School, and a member of the Russian Federal Public Chamber and the Ministry of Education’s Public Council.

Original article in Russian

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