Putin as Gay Icon? Memes as a Tactic in Russian LGBT+ Activism
In 2016, images of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face wearing make-up and superimposed on a gay pride flag were banned in Russia on the grounds of giving “the impression of a non-standard sexual orientation” of Putin. This intervention by the government into the image politics of Putin put Russian nationalism and sexuality into contestation with each other. In this paper, we map four “realms” or possible discourses of sexual citizenship and the Russian state. Through a semiological analysis of the “gay clown” meme, we unpack its contested meaning as a visual artifact of “queer globalization.” In light of the co-opting and criminalization of the meme and attempts by the Russian state to regulate the sexuality of its “first citizen,” we conclude that the “gay clown” meme demands a reassessment of how LGBT+ social movements use queer iconographies in virtual and public spaces.
In 2016, an image of President Vladimir Putin wearing make-up and superimposed on a gay pride flag was banned in Russia.1 According to the Russian Federation’s (RF) Ministry of Justice, which maintains an online database of extremist materials, the image is “meant to give the impression of a non-standard sexual orientation of the RF president,” centering the altered image of Putin in a fraught debate over LGBT+ rights in Russia.2 Yet the image has appeared on Russian social media in an apparent critique of both gay rights and Putin. How could the same image shift its meaning in this way? In this paper, we argue that the queered image of Putin, currently enjoying wide circulation as a global Internet meme, presents a shift in the representational and sexual politics of Putin’s Russia. The RF’s response to the meme signals a new effort by Putin to legally regulate the sexual status of his globally recognizable media celebrity.
This chapter examines the way in which discourses of sexuality interface with the Russian state on material and symbolic levels. The material level includes public space and legal discourse, while the symbolic level includes the visual narratives and “riffs” deployed by political actors to operationalize sexuality in order to impugn or affirm Putin’s masculinity and legitimacy. The Russian state and its leaders are frequently put into conversation with homosexuality, but the valence of the discourse shifts by context.
The first section of this chapter examines the image in closer detail, conducting a semiotic analysis of how a picture becomes memetic, able to travel across space and time. We consider the subject of the gay clown image itself,3 Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a critical space within the interpretive polysemy of protest. The second section uses this meme to present and explore four realms of discourse, explicating the fluid and contentious discourse about sexuality, Putin, and the Russian state. We examine how the realms reflect the contestation over homosexuality in Russia. We conclude with an assessment of the spatial-political implications of the meme’s visuality. We emphasize that the explicit shift from behavior (defining sexual acts between subjects) to performance and images (especially those suggestive of Putin’s “non-standard sexual orientation”) recenters the gender debate within an authoritarian range, reifying homophobic propaganda and justifying anti-gay state policy.
Pouting Putin, Pop Art, and Political Portraits: Symbols and Syntax of a Meme
In this section, we explore the emergence of the Putin as gay clown meme. The image debuted on social media outside of Russia in the context of foreign reactions to the 2013 Russian anti-“gay propaganda” law No. 135-FZ.4,5 On August 23, 2013, a Getty photographer at a protest outside the Russian embassy in Madrid photographed a protester with a sign depicting Putin’s face in bold make-up superimposed over a rainbow flag with the words “STOP HOMOFOBIA” [sic] inscribed on his forehead. The image appeared later that day on Slate, the progressive American news site, in an article criticizing the law’s impact on the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Keating 2013). According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, the meme’s debut in Russia can be traced to a May 7, 2014 post by user “Alexander Tsvetkov” on the Russian social network vKontakte.6 Here, the image appears (sans the inscription “STOP HOMOFOBIA”) on a poster, above a caption reading (in Russian): “Electors of Putin are like homosexuals ; there are many, but among my friends there are none.” In response to the circulation of the meme across Russian social media, in 2016 the Central District Court of Tver issued a verdict banning the image in the RF. In March 2017, the Ministry of Justice added the image to its federal list of extremist materials: the heavily photoshopped depiction of Vladimir Putin against a rainbow backdrop, sporting vivid eye make-up, enhanced eyelashes, and a colorful pout was “envisioned” by the author(s) “to give the impression of a non-standard sexual orientation of the RF president.”7 While the Ministry of Justice listing omits “obscene vocabulary” from the original quote, the implications of the message’s political calculus are clear: Putin voters are homosexual and Putin’s their man. Homophobia imbues the anti-Putin message with the partisan political language of us and them. The following section unpacks how the meme functions as a contentious site of meaning-making, bridging aesthetics, discourses of sexuality, and the purported power of political iconography.
A meme is highly unstable as a symbolic object for two reasons: It is essentially intertextual, and it depends on syntactic play by modifying or “riffing on” a central image. The Putin as gay clown meme is an iteration of a dynamic series of similar memes conveying political meaning by appropriating material from other social discourses. The meme’s power as an object of discourse is largely syntactic, combining processual elements and compositional surfaces (Gemünden 1995). One element of this syntax is Putin’s superimposed purple pout. In the Whittaker (2000) article “Face to efface with the pout,” he quips: “it can’t be long before the ‘smiling heads of state’ photo op… becomes the pouting heads of state. It works for Putin” (n/p). The addition of a thick overlay of photoshopped color to Putin’s pout appears to mock the inward-looking, self-refuting qualities of the leader’s public visage. Putin’s garishly colored lips and eyelashes center the viewer’s gaze on the disembodied gravitas which gives the face a “privileged form within the transformations of modernity” (Werth 2006) and, subsequently, the discursive mobility of political portraiture from Soviet to post-Soviet visual culture. By rerouting this mobility from official fields of circulation, the portrait of the leader addresses a revised contract between sexualized spheres of public and private life. Here, the “knowledge and experience of individuality,” coded in the face, queers the sociopolitical calculus of Putin’s iconic masculine, heterosexual “Everyman” persona (Simmel 1997).8 Putin’s “Regular Joe” scenario is recoded as “gay,” “drag,” or otherwise in flux (Wood 2016, p. 331).
These syntactic modifications also demonstrate an affiliation with Western artistic traditions which co-opt iconic portraiture as means of political critique: The composition of the Putin meme strongly echoes Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych.9 Iterations of the Putin meme which incorporate text, such as those with “STOP HOMOFOBIA” stenciled across Putin’s forehead, also deploy a strategy of estrangement. This estrangement is seen in Warhol’s portrait of President Richard Nixon, which boasts the scrawled phrase “Vote McGovern” and so makes explicit its political stance to the figure pictured. More recently, the image resonates with strategies such as “queering the Queen” that have been documented at LGBT+ pride parades in the UK; both function as an example of the contradictory existence of “shared” and “modifying” gay identities within the space of public activism (Ammaturo 2016; Armstrong 2002).
As such, invocation of the pop art aesthetic contributes to the subversive quality of the meme in two ways. First, it speaks to the geographic scope of the meme’s legibility by evoking Western political art tropes. Second, the trope offers (syn)tactical resources for resisting or reifying Putin’s heteronationalist discourses by centering the image of the leader as site for political critique. In this manner, the meme “spectacularizes” any “official” intervention in the textual economy that constructs Putin’s image (Goscilo 2013a), undercutting the conditions of monologic socialist iconographies (Bonnell 1999; Turner 1990). The “success” of the Putin meme demands that the leader portrait is viewed as a contested political technology, making a farce of a language that is predominately an agency of state power. These fluid discourses on sexuality promote contentious politics by imbricating Russian politics, LGBT+ activism in post-Soviet space, and Western pro-LGBT+ rights language in the disruptive “politics of the meme.”
Discourses of Sexuality and Russian Politics
Realms of discourse
Depiction of homosexuality
Depiction of Russia/Putin
“The Heteronormative State”
“Queering the Resistance”
“Heteronormative-homophobic Opposition Politics”
In Realm I, “The Heteronormative State,” we see the manifestation of “hegemonic heteronormativity” (Ludwig 2011), as the state flexes its muscles to promote an image of hypermasculinity which impugns opponents by attacking their heterosexuality. In Realm II, “Patriotic Homosexuality,” we explore the possibilities of a discourse of patriotic homosexuality bridging the state and civil society. Realm III, “Queering the Resistance,” manifests itself through a shared meaning-making of queer globalization and localized opposition to Putin’s regime, toward the assertion of LGBT+ rights in real and virtual space. Finally, we define Realm IV as “Heteronormative-homophobic Opposition Politics,” where we explore how opposition to Putin enjoins the condemnation of homosexuality in public discourse. We see the meme of Putin as a gay clown shift between these last two realms—“Queering the Resistance” and “Heteronormative-homophobic Opposition Politics”—moving from the material level in Western protests in 2013 to the symbolic level of the viral image, and back to the material/legal level where it is banned in Russia in 2016.
Realm I: Homophobia in Russian Politics and the Heteronormative State
In this section, we trace the way in which issues of queer identity are present on material and symbolic levels in Russian politics. The status quo of both Soviet era and Russian era homosexual politics exist in Realm I: “the Heteronormative State.” This discursive regime is anti-homosexuality and pro-Russia/pro-Putin, as evidenced by the 2010 and 2013 “anti-homosexual propaganda” laws and the media discourse surrounding the sexuality of Putin and his political opponents. Here, we find the strong ideological dictate that homosexuality is damaging to a strong Russian state, and so should be controlled, limited, or eliminated. First, we focus on the material levels: the way in which the government attempts to erase the phenomenon of gayness from public space and the public sphere. This marks a shift from regulating the act of (male) gay sex to decriminalizing the act and instead regulating the imagery in the public sphere. We then turn our attention to the symbolic use of queer imagery by both Putin friends and foes to emasculate political opposition. This battle for control over the material and symbolic production of gayness in public and political space then replicates itself in the Putin meme.
“The Man:” Putin’s Hypermasculine, Symbolic Body
Much has been made of Putin’s hypermasculinity; these images of Putin are part of a debate over the nature of his regime; the focus on hyper, hegemonic masculinity is part of a personalistic appeal to power (see Wood’s 2016 discussion of how Putin’s hypermasculinity is a “scenario of power” itself). The degree to which dominance and subordination are performed is relative to the implied sexuality of the political actors. Performative sexuality has already entered the realm of spectacle in Russian politics (Sperling 2015). Putin’s hypermasculinity is frequently weaponized against his political opponents. This is a second manifestation of the relationships in Realm I, the heteronormative state: using an attack on homosexuality by proxy in order to disparage political opponents. Putin’s hypermasculinity creates conditions under which the political opponents are delegitimized or defeated through emasculinization (Sperling 2015). At a state-sponsored camp organized for pro-Kremlin youth in 2007, a poster exhibit of liberal opposition leaders Mikhail Kasyanov, Garry Kasparov, and Eduard Limonov photoshopped their faces onto female bodies clad in bustiers and thigh-high stockings. Labeled the “Red Light District,” portrayal of these politicians as transvestite prostitutes was meant to imply that they had sold Russia to the West (Sperling 2015). This depiction feminized the opposition, attacking their masculinity while implicitly accentuating Putin’s masculinity. Another example occurred in 2011, when photos of Communist Party deputy Artem Samsonov appeared on the Web, showing him wearing a dress, kissing a man, with his underwear pulled down. He sued for 5.5 million rubles and argued that regime supporters were behind these materials. Samsonov wrote on his Twitter feed: “I share the opinion that ‘United Russia’ is the party of crooks and thieves, and that Putin is leading the country toward collapse and civil war, but I have a normal sexual orientation, I’m not an exhibitionist, not a transvestite, I’ve never taken off my clothes for the public, and never put photos of myself naked or in women’s dresses on the Internet” (Sperling 2015). Both images depict political opposition in women’s clothes, conflating cross-dressing and being gay with emasculinization and sexual deviance. Samsonov’s response is telling—asserting that his sexuality is “normal,” equating homosexuality with deviance. Thus, he rejects the characterization of himself, not the characterization of gayness as wrong.
These scenarios underscore the instability of the discursive regime of sexual citizenship operating in Putin’s Russia. Romanets (2017) analyzes a Russian web library that hosts thousands of images that represent Putin as an alpha male, while sexually debasing Western and Ukrainian officials. Romanets (2017) notes that there are recurrent homosexual and transvestite scenarios, which “bluntly manipulate the concepts of masculinity and sexual deviancy as part of their anti-adversarial rhetoric because domination for a patriarchal culture can only be experienced as a form of emasculation” (p. 161). Further, the “sexually charged construct” of “Putin the Emasculator” haunts the Russian oppositional consciousness as the figure responsible for “weakening … and emasculating institutions that underlined … the division of power,” as well as “emasculating federalism” (Allawala 2016, cited in Romanets 2017, p. 161). In this formulation, Putin even demands dominance and submission from his own state, while insinuating a transition to outright homophobia, even within opposition politics, as defined by Realm IV.
Realm II: The (Mostly Foreclosed?) Possibility of Patriotic Homosexuality
Realm II, patriotic homosexuality, exists in a liminal space. On the one hand, an uneasy relationship with pro-LGBT+ activism in light of changing public perceptions and the passing of the propaganda law in 2013 has fractured the LGBT+ community in Russia (Ebel 2016); some members of the LGBT+ community in Russia continue to support Putin’s presidency, while others file for asylum abroad (Buyantueva 2018). As homophobia intensifies, the possibility of organizing a movement which espouses patriotic homosexuality in the context of supporting democratic reform, civil rights, or a transition away from Putin’s becomes foreclosed. Moreover, while strategies of “passive political behavior” and “nonaction” (Buyantueva 2018; Soboleva and Bakhmetjev 2015) may mitigate risk of entanglement with authorities and subsequent exposure to families and colleagues, this kind of political noninvolvement recalls late socialist “parallel cultures,” espousing a kind of patriotism which disorders any neat relationship between power and resistance (Yurchak 1997).
However, the unstable nature of homosexuality in Russian discourse complicates the interpretation of the state’s response to the Putin as gay clown imagery. It is worth noting how other voices contribute to the construction of privileged subjectivities within Putin’s regime of sexual citizenship. For example, Alexandr Dugin, a proponent of Neo-Eurasianism and fascist thought, is controversially credited with stating that Russia has made a mistake by refusing to “accept, incorporate, and develop a homosexual discourse of patriotic homosexuality by juxtaposing it to European ‘sodomy’” (Romanets 2017).10 While far from the Russian leadership’s stance, it is also an inversion of Gorky’s maxim: “eliminate homosexuality and you will make fascism disappear” (Essig 1999). We need only to accept a contortion of the present regime of sexual citizenship by embracing Dugin’s “patriotic homosexuality” to inoculate Russia against the existential threat of “European sodomy” and its attendant human rights-based discourse. The political alignment between LGBT+ rights and ideology remains unclear and is constantly open to reinterpretation and imaginations as political opponents are emasculated in Russian political discourse.
Realm III: Queering the Resistance?
Given the fuzzy alignment between LGBT+ rights, ideology, power, and resistance in Putin’s Russia, possibilities for anti-Putin, pro-LGBT+ social movements should be grounded in Realm III. Despite contention within the Russian LGBT+ community over the politics of pride parades, the centrality of space to the survival and, ultimately, the success of LGBT+ activist communities remain largely focused on real public spaces as opposed to the virtual public spaces of the Internet. As Stella (2013) notes, there are both everyday, largely private uses of space (what she calls in Moscow “the Scene”), and Pride events, which she defines as “a temporary but also highly visible and politicized appropriation of [public] space by the LGBT community” (p. 17). Pride parades are perhaps the most forward of ways to render the invisible visible, allowing for a “collective coming out” (Valentine 2003), presenting “a spatial and social articulation of political and human rights claims” (Ammaturo 2016). Yet how this strategy promotes a unified front in the face of discrimination and physical violence against LGBT+ persons in Russia remains unsettled.
The growth of online spaces and social media networks has fostered the expansion of LGBT+ rights activism, although as Buyantueva (2018) notes, it does not “secure activists from verbal or emotional abuse” or protect a user’s identity against extortion or blackmail (Buyantueva 2018, pp. 8, 20). Importantly, the Internet is the realm of queer globalization as well. Insofar as Russian law prohibits “effacing” Putin’s likeness, the turn to authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia is far from complete. The Internet remains a space where new ideas and shared meaning-making take place, both within Russian LGBT+ activist communities and across territorial borders. The possibility of a new “Scene” (in the sense espoused by Stella 2013) bridging real and virtual space can be evidenced in recent flash mobs in St. Petersburg, which simultaneously celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia while calling national and global attention to claims of LGBT+ persecution and torture in Chechnya (“Gay rights activists hold flash-mob protest in St. Petersburg,” 2017). Such resistance strategies also call into question the construction of time and individual agency within the ideological practices of social groups.
Realm IV: Heteronormative-Homophobic Opposition Politics
Amid the Russian media’s buildup to the 2012 presidential elections, opposition candidates began exploiting media focus on sexuality by directly attacking Putin’s masculinity and virility. These attacks exist within Realm IV, frequently adopting the same rhetorical strategies used by Putin in Realm I to “emasculate” his opponents. In the attacks, opposition candidates called Putin #botox on social media, thus implying that he had lost his status as a strong Russian man by receiving “Hollywoodesque” Botox treatment (Goscilo 2013b). Putin’s calculated performance of masculine vigor subsequently became the subject of a 2011 political cartoon in which he is portrayed as a drunk patron slumped over a bar and is “cut off” from ordering another Botox (Goscilo 2013b, p. 189). Through the depiction of his body and the implied threat to his masculinity from receiving Botox, Putin was delegitimatized by his opponents through the strategic exploitation of a perceived “hole” in Putin’s hegemonic masculine legitimacy. The promise of “real” political change in Russia, by this logic, has its origin in the discursive play of sexuality and sexual citizenship. Sperling (2015) argues the Botox episode “created an opening for the belief that political change was possible” (pp. 117–118). Moreover, these tactical gambits with the celebrity of Putin’s sexuality frequently alloy his masculinity with the Other.11 As Novitskaya (2017) notes, Putin has “thin skin,” an inability to withstand any challenge to his fragile masculinity. The ease at which Putin is offended, and the centrality of hyper-heteronormativity, makes it easy to mock him. Sperling (2015) contends that allegations that Putin is a pedophile may have contributed to the demise of Alexander Litvinenko in a London hospital in 2006 (p. 112).
This section illustrates that the imagery of homosexuality as a means of disparaging Putin did not come out of nowhere. It reflects a political and discursive climate where political actors on both the left and the right of Putin mobilize homophobic discourses as a tool to delegitimatize opponents. This also underscores the fact that, unlike in the West, the “Overton’s window” for change is relatively small. Whereas leftwing parties in most Western countries have embraced a pro-LGBT+ agenda, which would effectively expand Realm II, or provide a bridge between Realms II and IV, that association is not linear in Russia. Both the possibility of a viable opposition party, and thus of a vibrant state that embraces LGBT+ rights, is muted by homophobia discourses and attendant friction within the liberal, anti-Putin opposition. The discourse of imagery and the parameters of its power are by and large factors of an authoritarian state enlisting hegemonic masculinity and homophobia to perform discursive and, in some cases, physical violence against opponents.
Pride Before a Fall: Material Contestations of LGBT+ Activism in Public Space
In this section, we adopt a contentious politics perspective, analyzing the interplay between the various realms sketched above. We recognize that not all actors and discourses overlay “perfectly”; for instance, while a “party line” within the discursive regime of the heteronormative state may exist, from the examples analyzed in this paper, a contentious politics perspective allows us to explore the messy boundaries of activist and establishment discourses. We first look at the macrolevel conflict between Realms I and III, in which the hegemony of the Russian heteronormative state uses its power to undermine LGBT+ rights and activism, thereby diffusing the possibility of a pro-LGBT+ activist nationalism (Realm II). Then, we turn to the way in which opposition to the Russian state plays on sexual politics, particularly in terms of how the Putin meme manifests contentious politics as a form of heteronormative-homophobic opposition politics (Realm IV).
The Russian government’s backlash against the Putin meme and the concomitant re-entrenchment of heteronormative regimes of sexual citizenship share a common thread. The current crisis has its roots in continued contestations between LGBT+ movements in Russia and the Russian state. The most recent manifestation of this contestation was the institution of a 100-year ban on Pride events in Moscow in 2012 (“Gay parades banned in Moscow for 100 years,” 2012). The ban effectively aims to control the material circulation of counter-hegemonic discourses and to disempower LGBT+ activist citizens from publicly campaigning for cultural visibility and civic inclusion (Kondakov 2013; Turner 1990). Thus, the political contestation over events like pride parades becomes a means of vying for control over that which is both public and visual at the material and symbolic levels—a clash between the heteronormative Russian state of Realm I and tactics of queering the resistance which categorize Realm III.
Religious actors also play a linking role in the backlash against Pride events manifested in the interplay between Realms I and III. Persson (2015) argues that the chaotic nature of Pride events—their visibility, organization, and action in public space—were frequently met with hostility and violence from private and public actors alike. This reaction “has put homosexuality and LGBT rights—or rather how to ensure the absence of such rights—on the mainstream agenda” (Persson 2015). An unholy alliance between nationalists, communists, United Russia (the Putinist party), parental organizations, and the Orthodox Church has subsequently established anti-gay rhetoric as the norm in the public sphere. Stella (2013) points to the failure of “queer visibility” to assuage public anxieties “intertwined with the crisis and renegotiation of national identity in post-Soviet Russia” (p. 462), a crisis also steeped in broader demographic concerns over reproductive issues and evocations of collective memory of patriarchy, frequently emphasizing “shared blood line[s]” (Mole 2011). The role of religion, in particular, upholds state legitimacy by sanctioning “only those identity performances that correspond to the reproductive and disciplinary needs of the state” (Rourke and Wiget 2016).
The second stage of the backlash against LGBT+ activism is marked by the Russian Duma’s “rubber stamping” of Federal Law No. 135-FZ, criminalizing the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” (our italics) among minors; the Duma approved the law unanimously (Kondakov 2013; Feyh and Iasine 2015).12 Homosexuality was explicitly presented as a matter of protecting Russia’s children from a contagious psychological illness that could only be combated by “restricting propaganda of homosexuality in the form of parades, pedagogy, and parenting” (Moss, quoted in Romanets 2017). This presentation further chills public discourse, as criticizing the law or advocating for LGBT rights is made to carry a higher degree of risk in public spaces, “as one might be perceived as justifying child abuse” (Persson 2015). Although the 2013 law does not reverse the precedent of decriminalization of homosexuality started in the 1990s, echoes of the “treasonous gay” reverberate through the language, in that it “clearly targets non-heterosexual relations: in the original draft the term was ‘propaganda for homosexuality’ (propaganda gomoseksualizma), and the popular word in the press was gay propaganda (gei-propaganda)” (Persson 2015). Loosely crafted to blur public perceptions of homosexuality, child abuse, and treason, this rhetoric reifies the interplay between the heteronormative state (Realm I) and the possibility of a patriotic homosexuality (Realm II) within public spheres delimited by Russian law.
Both the banning of Pride events and the anti-“gay propaganda” legislation aim to assert a new regime within this public sphere of citizenship. They represent a break from Czarist and Soviet laws outlawing behavior or action at the scale of the body to laws which outlaw the “public visibility of homosexuality in Russian society” (Stella 2013), including distribution of literature about homosexuality. Indeed, Persson (2015) argues that banning homosexual propaganda in 2013 is a media spectacle insofar as it attempts to curb portrayals of queer visibility. However, this media “spectacle,” centered as it may be on the symbolic level of discourse, has real consequences beyond depriving activists of strategies with which to “queer” their resistance to Putin’s personalistic brand of authoritarianism.
Significant physical and discursive violence against the visibility of non-heterosexual bodies has risen as a result (Novitskaya 2017). Essig (2014) points to a particularly violent example of discourse related to the propaganda law. During a debate aired by state-run television network Poccия-1 on April 4, 2012, Dmitry Kiselyov, the controversial host of that network’s weekly “News of the Week” program, explained his stance on the issue: “I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough. They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life” (in Essig 2014, p. 40).13 Kiselyov’s remarks, met with polite applause from the live studio audience, were widely circulated online and in international news media following the passage of the 2013 legislation.
The process of othering deployed in the language of the 2013 anti-“gay propaganda” law construes the gay body as anathema, literally “foreign,” and “unsuitable for the continuation of life,” and discursively constructs it as a vector of Western emasculation of Russian values. This discourse constructs the gay body as an Other positioned outside of the RF’s heteronationalist value structure, enabling the critiques of Putin to circulate from the hypermasculinist status quo of Realm I to Realm IV, whereby opponents co-opt LGBT+ protest imagery from Western sources to attack Putin’s masculinity and impugn his political base. Evidenced by Kiselyov’s dehumanizing commentary and the apparent magnetism of Putin’s sexuality to allies and foes alike, the discursive interplay between realms functions politically. It effectively casts suspicion over homosexual behaviors and norms while entertaining the possibility that Putin is a pedophile and that the Russian state has the sole power to destroy or recognize the LGBT+ community. Moreover, in the interplay between the heteronormative state of Realm I and the homophobic opposition politics of Realm IV, we encounter an immutable heterogender binary constructed around Putin’s Everyman image and act, situated on the masculine side of the dyad. Read through Butler’s (1990) construction of gender, even when “instituted” in the memetic space of LGBT+ protests in Russia and abroad (as in Realm III), or insinuated by or against his political opponents, Putin reaffirms control of his gender identity as his to stylize and repeat sui generis. Here, we see an unprecedented development in Putin’s hypermasculine “scenario of power” (Wood 2016): a feint toward delimiting a copyright to sexual citizenship for the Russian president. Such a strategy emerges from a polylogue of linguistic, visual, and discursive shifts since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991: Some perpetuate Soviet epistemologies within public and private spaces which retain an imprint of Soviet norms.
Implications and Conclusions
In a 2017 episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the American talk show host delivered a monologue about a headline from an article published by The Washington Post earlier that week: “It’s now illegal in Russia to share an image of Putin as a gay clown.” Barely containing his amusement, Colbert deadpans to his viewers: “Straight clown? Totally okay. Bisexual lion tamer? Again, totally fine. But gay and clown? Nyet, comrade!”14 Colbert’s humorous commentary reached millions of viewers in the United States, exposing a predominantly progressive American viewing audience with the latest turn in the development of Putin’s calculated politics of sexuality. Colbert then satirized the iconic photograph of Vladimir Putin bare chested on horseback: “I could see that guy leading a pride parade easily.” Insofar as the meme co-opts public images of Putin, it then uses a syntax of queering to undercut the symbolic economy that articulates Putin’s public (often hypermasculinized) body.
While to Western audiences the Putin memes may suggest relatively innocuous satire, reading them in the context of post-Soviet constructions of LGBT+ activist identity reveals the contentious politics that underpin its rhetoric. Colbert’s routine, linking Putin’s personas to a stock of queer stereotypes, shows at once the homophobic and paranoid reaction of Putin’s government to the rhetorical claims of LGBT+ activists worldwide. Yet, the visual rhetoric of the Drag Putin a la Warhol-turned-gay clown meme appears to reproduce a homonormative, homonationalist discourse minimizing space for competing understandings of queerness and the rights of queer citizens (Puar 2007). It also affirms the notion that a public culture which supports LGBT+ rights activism remains a necessary condition for LGBT+ communities to develop beyond “survival” mode (Buyantueva 2018; Offord 2011).
Why has the meme engendered such polarizing reactions from Russian authorities and Western media? Moreover, can the image—or memes in general—be successfully (re)appropriated within the LGBT+ activist repertoire in Russia? At the material level, memes operate as “objectifications” of political sentiment, transmitting certain social knowledges and practices across space and time (Berger and Luckmann 1991). The circulation of memes depends on variation: These shifts can reveal or obscure the semantic legibility of its content. Counter-hegemonic discourses, such as images circulated leading up to the 2012 Russian presidential elections showing Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as blushing paramours, can engender multiple readings. Memes depicting Putin as a gay clown may be in fact minted within the bounds of dominant (heteronormative, hegemonic masculine) narratives (Bhaba 1990).
Furthermore, when memes shift, two important transformations occur. First, the shifting decentralizes the field of meaning by erasing the “author” in the meme’s transmission. This can make legal blame and geographical origin difficult to assign (crimes have authors, even if texts do not), potentially explaining the Ministry of Justice’s decision to implement a ban on the clown image. Because the author cannot be traced, the image itself must be held responsible. Concurrently, it may make it more difficult for activists to stabilize a meaning for their texts or dispute contradicting interpretations. Such interpretations are not unique to the meme’s transmission from the West to Russia. Within American media discourse, discourse shifted from the time the 2016 Tver decision was reported by The Washington Post (Selk and Filipov 2017), and Stephen Colbert’s subsequent comments that the image looked more like “Joel Grey from (the 1972 musical drama) Cabaret meets a sad dog.” Second, as the meme circulates, it becomes changed by its movement across time and space. This takes on a tactical valence by allowing the Putin memes to “tease” Russian authorities in virtual spaces. However, such transmissions may preclude the formation of stable conditions for the meme’s production and reception, as the image resists attribution and incorporation into common political knowledge.
Given its global implications, it may appear safe to assume that the Putin meme persists an artifact of “queer globalization” at the center of the LGBT+ struggle to reimagine sexual citizenship in the RF. The presence of the image at protests within and beyond Russia recalls the centrality of public space to the proliferation of the meme. As Stella (2013) notes, both the Scene and Pride events “can be read as instances of the transnational proliferation of a recognizable repertoire of queer consumption and politics” (p. 19) reproducing a space of cultural globalization in which “global queering” can be performed (Altman 1996). The memetic nature of images is part of the process through which global queering is possible. While to Western observers the prohibition on Pride marches in Moscow’s public spaces and the addition of the gay clown image to the Ministry of Justice’s list of “extremist materials” may smack of a Stalin-esque “cult of personality,” the polysemic performance of the meme, enabled by consumerist cultural patterns and technologies, constitutes secondary production (De Certeau 1984; Gray 2001). These practices occur largely in a social order subjacent to Russian authorities (Cassiday and Johnson 2013; Yurchak 2006).
However, the deployment of the Putin meme challenges many assumptions about the political valence of that globalization. The symbolism of the meme implicitly serves as a regressive, non-state “intervention” in the construction of public and private spaces for LGBT+ activism and identity in Russia and abroad. While initially a protest drawing attention to state-sanctioned homophobia in Russia and its police tactics against queer bodies and representations, the spatial dimensions of the circulation of the Putin meme, as well as its origin and near-ubiquity at anti-homophobia protests outside of Russia attests to what Essig (2014) calls a “clash of fundamentalisms” (p. 50). This clash occurs primarily between what Essig terms a rights-centered gay international activism “which was always a Western one” and “indigenous Russian values” and discourse (Essig 2014). This analysis also underscores the window of change available to LGBT+ activists. Without an expansion of Realm II, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for LGBT activists to rely on the state. Paradoxically, such an expansion of “patriotic homosexuality” into mainstream political and media discourse could be regarded as suspect by members of the LGBT+ community in Russia and the Russian public alike, given the positionality of statements made by political insiders like Dmitri Kiselyov.
Just as the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia came amid international pressure on the state to accede to the Council of Europe (Kon 1997), the circulation and subsequent criminalization of the Putin meme speaks as much to endogenous developments in Russian public culture as it does exogenous forces. Given Putin’s seemingly inexorable drive to shift Russia away from the West and toward a uniquely Russian cultural and geopolitical identity, the possibilities of shared meaning-making diminish. We recognize that the identity-constructing practices of “Western” LGBT+ communities may not hold sway with Russian LGBT+ peoples’ willingness to engage in activism. The meme operates within an increasingly poisoned public discourse on LGBT+ rights, one which challenges the centrality of the Internet as a subcultural space for “coming out” and community organizing. As an LGBT+ activist from Russia’s Far East noted, on the Internet, “you can say what you want, nobody is going to misquote or distort … every event should be organized on the Internet. It is not effective and dangerous to do something in real life” (Buyantueva 2018, p. 8). The criminalization of the gay clown meme and its attendant discursive shifts pose a serious danger to LGBT+ activists to develop and mobilize online in two ways.
First, by entering Russian media discourse, the Putin meme is “relocalized” from “Eurocentric” discourse Realm III to Realm IV. This has the capacity to strip the image of its meaning-making capacity for LGBT+ communities within Russian media discourse (and subsequently public perception) by fusing anti-Putin sentiment with pro-LGBT+ rights advocacy. Common markers of community identity—from the rainbow flag to visual constructions of “queerness”—are co-opted by countermovements, potentially foreclosing the possibility of meaning-making and LGBT+ community activism online. The stiff legal penalties and social consequences of engaging in LGBT+ protest not only increase risk to the individual, but also cast suspicion on linkages between LGBT+ rights-centered protest and pro-democracy social movements.
Second, the Russian state’s efforts to disrupt Internet communication and stifle online dissent is nothing new. The politicization and criminalization of this meme initiate a new set of norms, rules, and patterns of how social movements may opt to mobilize under pressure from both repressive political actors and their manipulation of digital information ecologies. While we do not attribute the popularity or controversy of the “gay clown” meme to the ideological projects of “bots” or “trolls,” the Internet’s potential as a democratic space for the mobilization of pro-LGBT+ public perception—or moreover, as Buyantueva (2018) notes, as a space for the “survival” of the community—appears threatened by the Russian state’s response. Likewise, in the ongoing (and surreal) aftermath of recriminations between the US intelligence community, the White House, and the Putin regime over Russian government interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Western media frequently feature high profile stories implicating pro-Putin “computational propaganda” (Woolley and Howard 2016) in attacks on politicians, gay celebrities, and pro-LGBT+ social media accounts in Europe and the United States. Further research could shed light on the information ecologies in which Russian LGBT+ communities and pro-Putin autonomous agents may unwittingly assemble, and the implications of such contested virtual spaces and discourses on the success of LGBT+ social movements.
The gay clown meme demonstrates tactical politics by (a) subverting the syntactic excesses of Russian nationalist discourses that marry heterosexual masculinity to governmental authority, and (b) decentralizing the spatiotemporal locus of activist rhetoric. However, it is the mobilization of queer iconographies to undercut Putin’s power which reifies the very trope of queerness-as-weakness (and its mirror in masculinity as strength) that animates heteronationalist hegemonic discourses. The Western protest strategy of “queering the Queen” ends up meaning something totally different in the Russian context when “STOP HOMOFOBIA” is removed from the mix and substituted with a homophobic, anti-Putin caption. Readings of the meme in the United States, for example, perpetuate “gay villain” stereotypes, often among self-professed anti-Putin progressives. This reading speaks to a kind of homonationalism which destabilizes the construction of a sustainable and just regime of sexual citizenship in Putin’s Russia (Kahn 2017).
These implications are made more profound by the homophobic discourses harnessed by Putin’s regime and the attendant climate of violence affecting LGBT+ communities and individuals throughout the RF, including shocking reports of “gay genocide” in Chechnya (Walker 2017). What is certainly not to be done, to paraphrase Essig’s (2014) purposeful rephrasing of Lenin’s question, is to more rigidly define a politically correct queerness while lowering the political costs of reinstituting stereotypes of “treasonous homosexuals” in the post-Soviet context or “gay villains” in the West.
Although the authors regret we could not secure permission to publish this photograph, we encourage readers to conduct a google image search for “Drag Putin a la Warhol” or “Putin as a gay clown” to view the image referenced throughout the paper.
должно служить намеком на якобы нестандартную сексуальную ориентацию президента РФ; Retrieved from the Federal List of Extremist Materials [ФЕДЕРАЛЬНЫЙ СПИСОК ЭКСТРЕМИСТСКИХ МАТЕРИАЛОВ] Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (2019).
We use the term “gay clown” to refer to the image of Putin discussed throughout the paper. We trace the term in Western media discourse to Selk and Filipov (2017).
The bill passed the Russian Duma on June 11, 2013. It amends the 2010 law, “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” by defining “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” as a class of harmful content and expanding administrative penalties against offenders.
Government of Russian Federation. Ministry of Justice. (2017, March 30). Federal list of extremist material (Item no. 4071). Moscow: Government of Russian Federation.
See Werth’s (2006) discussion of Simmel and the centrality of the face.
See the Tate Modern’s description of the Marilyn Diptych here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
Dugin’s Neo-Eurasianism, elaborated in 1997s The Foundations of Geopolitics, seeks to restore Russia’s geopolitical position through the defeat of the United States and “Atlanticist” powers via a coordinated campaign of subversion and disinformation. Romanets (2017, p. 165) comments on the authenticity of the Dugin quote which appears in the foreword of his book, Homosexuality in the Service of the National Liberation Movement: “[n]o matter whether this foreword is a mystification posted on the Internet or an authentic text, it factors smoothly into the ideological substantiation of his imagined rivalry between Atlanticism and Eurasianism [sic].”
Like Gorky, Dugin does not specify a subject in his logic of patriotic homosexuality—who will fight Dugin’s Great Patriotic War against European Sodomy?
See also Russian Federal Law: N 135-FZ, 2013.
In December 2013, Putin tapped Kiselyov to run Russia Today, Russia’s state-run international news agency. However, in July 2015, Kiselyov came out in support of civil unions in Russia, stating “the existence of the LGBT community is a fact … You could figure out how to make life easier for adults if they want to take on, and on paper, the obligation to take care of each other. Love works wonders. Who’s against that?” (Oliphant 2015). Given Kiselyov’s favor with Putin, his statements suggest the possibility of interplay between the heteronormative state of Realm III and an expansion of patriotic homosexuality a la Realm II. This serves to illustrate two points: that the interplay between realms is necessarily “messy” and that the “looseness” of the 2010 and 2013 laws is a “feature,” not a “bug,” within the state’s discursive regime.
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