Deep in Siberia, in a town right on the border of Mongolia, a friend and I decided to visit a closeby church. When we arrived, it appeared we were out of luck – a priest was leaving the grounds, locking up. Actually, our timing couldn’t have been better. I asked if everything was closed, we struck up some small talk, and once the priest learned we were American students, he changed his mind about closing and instead waved us into his office.
Once inside, he started handing us newspapers. They were thin periodicals, comprised of just a few articles each, but every one featured a section entitled “Orthodoxy in America”. They might interest us, he said. And I was interested, especially after one page in particular caught my eye. In the headline of one of the newspapers was a picture that was glaringly familiar: a giant gay flag on the Boston city hall.
In Boston, that flag is a symbol of personal and collective pride. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage, and the flag ensures no one forgets it. Summer after summer, I’ve gone into Boston at the start of June for the Pride parade. The march always ends in front of the giant rainbow flag hanging in the middle of the city, right on the city hall. Unmissable.
For those who don’t feel like a disheartening tangent through internet searches, there is a law against LGBT propaganda in Russia that was put into place in 2013. A ban on propaganda is vague, meaning anything that could be interpreted as propaganda is carefully avoided. That was glaringly evident to me during my stay in Moscow: no gay couples in the serials playing on the dorm television. No pride parade, no rainbow flags. All the couples holding hands or kissing on the elevators down into the metro were very heterosexual.
The reasoning behind the law is that traditional family values must be preserved; in fact, the law is officially termed “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”. Despite past protests, and a ruling a year ago by a European court stating that the propaganda law should be illegal, the propaganda law has endured the past five years. It was always in the back of my mind in Moscow, where so much attention is paid to appearance, but for some reason, here in this tiny city it blindsided me.
Seeing the flag on the newspaper was like my stomach was suddenly full of rocks. My head told me I shouldn’t say anything, but it wasn’t in time to catch up with my mouth. “I live in Boston,” slipped out.
The priest didn’t seem fazed. “Boston – it’s a sacred city,” was all he said. We said our goodbyes, thanked him again for the newspapers, even got a bear hug as we left the church. I didn’t leaf through the newspapers until after I was back in my hotel room.
The article on Boston, predictably, included criticism of the metro system, which has to seem snail-like to anyone who has lived in Moscow (it’s faster to walk on foot, the article claims, which in some cases can be true). Then the author moves on to the flag. The flag, the author writes, adds a major negative to his impression of America. That the symbol of a community he views as being in the wrong could hang on such a prominent building is shocking. In short, the article isn’t shy about taking a side.
Looking back on it, I don’t really know what I was expecting. Kyakhta is so far removed from Moscow, geographically if nothing else, I had almost forgotten the same propaganda laws were in place here just as much as in a huge city. I just couldn’t help being bitterly disappointed, an otherwise positive interaction with a stranger marred by the reminder that people like me aren’t completely welcome in the religious spaces that are so prominent across Russia.
I’ve always felt as though in Boston the LGBT community has more or less been able to coexist with the religious community without conflict. I found it curious that while the article discusses religion in Massachusetts, no mention is made of the famous churches in the heart of Boston which proudly display rainbow flags year round. Besides making me that much prouder to be from the Boston area, the article made me wonder if a sympathetic portrayal of my so-called sacred city would have been allowed at all.