Thursday, February 6, 2014

Two Liberal Questions About My Story on Russian Queer Life

In response to a recent story in GQ, "Inside the Iron Closet," on being queer in Russia, I've heard two questions more than once.

1. Why Russia? The most honest answer is because readers are willing to think about these matters now in relation to Russia because of the Olympics. Then there are two variations: "Isn't it worse in, say, the American South?" And: "What about Uganda/Nigeria/Saudi Arabia?"? (I got the same question when I reported on homophobia from Uganda.) The answer is: If you're getting beat up, or kicked out of your home, or fired from your job, it doesn't matter whether you're in Vladivostok, Alabama, Kampala, or Manhattan: It's horrible. These things happen to queer people everywhere. But Russia matters now because it is the biggest, most powerful state by far to enthusiastically embrace (by a vote of 436-0 in the Duma) official homophobia. And they back it up with a state media apparatus that's like Fox News, all around the dial. Does that mean we should just call Putin bad names and ignore homophobia in the U.S.? Does that mean we have to accept Glenn Beck, "championing" LGBT rights as part of an attempt to reactive the Cold War? Of course not. We can't do much about Putin. We might be able to do something about what's happening here. But we need to have as broad a grasp as possible of what's at stake. Telling stories is a very limited form of solidarity, but it's better than a blind eye or left nationalism.

2. Why GQ? Bunch of lefty friends and acquaintances were puzzled by my "decision" to publish the story in a men's fashion magazine, the February issue of which offers as its biggest selling point on the cover Katy Perry's breasts. There's a literary answer -- GQ has been publishing great longform narrative nonfiction in with the fashion spreads and the sex advice for years now -- but the more relevant answer is that GQ was the magazine with the resources to make such a story possible. And it was the magazine that decided to dedicate the resources to this subject. It costs money to go to Russia, it costs money to work with translators. And, yes, it costs writers money to drop everything else they're doing and work around the clock on a story.

I should say I got help from one of the more identifiably left corners of the media world, The Nation Institute Investigative Fund, which paid for some of the background research that made this story possible. But too many liberal and lefty media outlets are squandering their resources on a shotgun approach. Instead of investing in the expensive work of longform investigative journalism, some publications dribble out their resources on a sprinkling of clip jobs and quickie phone-reported stories. It's not the journalists' fault; that's what publications that are always hedging their bets will pay for.

And maybe the literary answer is important, too, after all: Unlike some other wealthier slicks my pals probably subscribe to, GQ didn't ask me to busy up my story with "expert" talking heads or "the view from nowhere," aka the view from the elites who are used to talking to media. Don't get me wrong -- there's great, important journalism along these lines. My grief isn't with the journalists who write those kinds of stories -- it's with an elite media landscape that can "see" a story only when it's presented in those terms.

Shorter version: Why Russia? Because it's there. Why GQ? Because they paid for me to go there.