Survival Propaganda

Veronica Noseda

Portraits of Russian Players by Veronica Noseda taken during the Open Games held in Moscow in 2014.

Before leaving, I was told to be cautious, even though Moscow is known to be safer than St. Petersburg. Almost prophetically, some time prior to my departure, I heard the Russian ambassador in France, Alexander Orlov, declaring on the radio that “two gays kissing each other in the street is not uncommon in Russia”. As soon as I landed at Domodedovo Airport, on February 6th, 2014, I realized that this was a long way from reality.

The main purpose of my trip to Moscow was rather simple: to play football at the Open Games, a multisport tournament organized by the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. By doing so, I intended to show Russian activists facing the “gay propaganda law” the support of my Parisian lesbian soccer team (Les Dégommeuses) and more generally, of the French LGBT community.

Just a couple of hours before the Opening ceremony, while I was still flying over the birch forests covered with snow, my fellow friends of the Russian LGBT sports federation were going through proverbial hell: the majority of sporting venues had withdrawn, the hotel where most of the Russian athletes were supposed to be housed were cancelled as well, having given the pallid excuse that “a group of children was staying at the hotel,” and that even the club where the Opening Ceremony was to take place, which had been booked several weeks in advance, was no longer available. Eventually, through a refined communication system using Internet chatting tools, text messages and phone calls, the organizers were able to gather the approximately one hundred participants in the basement of a bar in the center of the city, where they could kick off the Games. Behind a thick curtain, watched by two security wards, we had a great show, as expected in this kind of ceremony: some singing and dancing performances interspersed the official discourse by the Russian LGBT leaders involved in the organization of the event. Despite our enthusiasm, however, we were not allowed to clap, out of the fear of attracting the attention of other guests. To express our excitement and joy of being present, we adopted a silent form of applause used by deaf people, which consists in turning the upraised hands.

That silent applause perfectly embodies what we collectively tried to achieve in the days that followed: to be visible despite political constraints, to resist being banned from public space by circumventing it, to stand together against harassment using creativity and determination. No need to say that when the Russian police have decided to badger you, you really need tenacity and patience. To illustrate this, let me clarify that during the four days of competition, we saw an outdoor ice rink closing for technical reasons because “some suspicious people”—that is some of the Open Games participants—had come to skate; several venues were evacuated for bomb threats or other unspecified security reasons, and the basketball tournament was interrupted as a result of a smoke bomb that went off in the gymnasium (incidentally, that moment was a turning point in the Games, since the organizers had to tell us that they could not guarantee our safety anymore).

The football tournament I had come to Moscow to take part in was scheduled for Saturday. After various cancellations, the organizers finally found a private venue that accepted to welcome the contest. We received instructions to meet at a fast food place, not far away from the sports club where the competition was supposed to be held. Yet we could not approach it: the police were already there, arguing that there had been a bomb alert in the building just beside. The arrival of the Dutch Minister of Sports, Edith Schippers, allowed a truce in the war of nerves with the security forces, and we were eventually able to start the tournament—but as soon as she left we had to run off again. The game of hike-and-seek lasted all day, but every time the police dismissed us, we were determined to come back. That is exactly what we did until the end of the Final.

The sports hall, with its walls entirely upholstered and covered with bottle green carpet, was like a giant antonym of the “closet”. Getting in was, for us—lesbian, gay and transgender athletes taking part in the Open Games—a way towards visibility and an ephemeral form of freedom in a State where our rights are forcefully denied; while keeping us out, for the police, was a fallacious attempt to hide our existence, which indeed had the opposite effect (is there anything more noticeable than a police cordon surrounding an anonymous building in the suburbs of Moscow?). Nevertheless, as contradictory as it seemed, this weird management of “secrecy” and “publicity,” which I assumed to be the legacy of a long-standing political history, had some kind of logic: our bodies were caught during the physical exertion, our expressions, the tension that animated every one of us, and above all the simple fact of being together (although temporarily) were indeed an incontrovertible form of gay propaganda. We were our own propaganda, and did not need words or advertisements to be outspoken—we were perfectly aware of that.

Let me tell you how it all ended. Apart from me, the goalie for Les Dégommeuses, my team consisted of an international mix made by three French players representing the Gay Games (which are scheduled to take place in Paris in 018), a Canadian lesbian journalist and some German and Russian players who had accepted to complete our squad. Quite miraculously, we achieved the third and fourth-place play-offs, which we won in a penalty shoot-out thanks to two magnificent and unbeatable Russian dykes that joined us for that match, and also because I stopped a penalty—certainly the best moment in my modest career.

Only once in my life, before, had sports provided the opportunity for me to to experience this feeling of pride and happiness, and that was at the famous “Parc des Princes” Stadium in Paris. On June 4th, 2012, Les Dégommeuses played a unique match against the Thokozani Football Club (TFC), which had been invited to Paris for a whole week of action against lesbophobia (the so called “Foot For Love” project). Located in the Umlazi township in Durban, South Africa, TFC was created in homage to Thokozane Qwabe, a young lesbian football player who was assassinated in 2007. The club was founded by the well-known photographer and “visual activist” Zanele Muholi, in an effort to encourage the self-empowerment of black lesbians through sports and the fight against discrimination through visibility. It is important to keep in mind that since 2001, more than twenty lesbophobic crimes have been officially recorded in South Africa; a reality that is joined by an increasing number of punitive rapes, also known as “corrective rapes”. The transgression represented by the fact of being a woman who plays a sport considered to be 100% masculine—as it is the case with football—would seem to add to the factors leading to such an eruption of violence, testified by the sad record of women who have died from hate crimes.

On that rainy day at Parc des Princes, several “survivors” were on the pitch—but none of them was victimized any longer. They were all football players, just like their fellow athletes, fighting to win the game, to obtain the gold medal and to impress the audience with a nice play. Moreover, as far back as I can remember, the power of that match was indeed in its ability to subvert the images of South African lesbians: while denouncing the violence that is perpetrated against them, it did not define them through that violence—not for a minute. In that sense, this game echoed the work of Zanele Muholi, in her attempt to create strong and positive images of empowered black queer women.

Muholi’s challenge is rather significant, but she is not alone. Like her, many other queer activists in France, South Africa, and Russia continuously find new strategies of resistance and visibility through art or sports. They call it propaganda. Let’s call it “survival propaganda”.

Picture of the penalty taken by Cyril Millet during the Open Games held in Moscow in 2014.