‘It can’t be that every instance of the word ‘gay’ is propaganda’ After SERB nationalist activists interrupted a play about being gay in Russia, police arrested the play's director. We asked her what happened.
On the evening of August 28, 12 activists from the SERB movement forced their way into Moscow’s Teatr.doc documentary theater and interrupted a play called Coming Out of the Closet. SERB is a radical nationalist group whose members have a history of similar attacks: In addition to targeting opposition figures, SERB has stormed or damaged multiple art exhibitions. When the group disrupted Coming Out of the Closet, multiple theater employees and audience members called the police. Officers responded by arresting the play’s director, Anastasia Patlai, as well as two audience members. One viewer was cited for disorderly conduct, and the other turned out to be under 18 years old even though he had shown theater employees a 19-year-old’s passport upon entry. We spoke with Patlai about the incident and about the suspiciously close relationship between SERB and the police.
Coming Out of the Closet has been in Teatr.doc’s repertoire for nearly three years, but before every staging, the theater’s employees still check every audience member’s passport upon entry to make sure nobody under 18 watches the show. Coming Out of the Closet is a documentary play like any other in that it is based strictly on real events: According to director Anastasia Patlai, it is based on more than 30 detailed interviews. However, a basis in fact doesn’t prevent some from seeing the performance as “gay propaganda” (the show follows Russian gay men between ages 30 and 40 as they come out to their mothers for the first time).
Even before the August 28, Patlai told Meduza, homophobic activists had targeted showings of Coming Out of the Closet at least twice. On one occasion, they called police officers before a Moscow performance of the play in July 2018. The officers arrived at Teatr.doc an hour before the show was set to begin, and Patlai explained to them that theater employees enforce a strict age limit to avoid breaking Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. When Patlai pointed the officers to groups on Russian social media sites where Internet users have posted threats against the theater, the police decided to stay for the duration of the play in case of any violence or disruption.
The second incident was much more recent, Patlai said: On Sunday, August 25, a group of known homophobic activists based in St. Petersburg targeted a showing of Coming Out of the Closet there. Patlai told Meduza that she was acting onstage as an understudy that day when she saw a man stand up in the audience and approach the stage, which is separated from viewers only by a row of columns. The man was not in uniform, she recalled, but he had a gun in his belt. Following the show, police officers arrived on the scene and began checking audience members’ passports. Evidently, they had received a call from somebody who said the play was “defiling children.” Patlai said she believed the August 28 incident was a “continuation” of what happened that night.
She and her staff began suspecting that something was wrong when one young man who came to watch the play appeared to be very nervous and took a long time to find his ticket. The man gave theater employees a copy of a passport that said he was born in 2000, but they took a picture of him and the passport nonetheless, suspecting that something might be amiss.
Patlai went on to tell Meduza that after the play began, a different man approached her in her office and expressed anger at the contents of the performance. He was followed shortly afterward by the same young man who had claimed to be 19. Both men then returned alongside 10 more adults carrying cameras and lights on selfie sticks.
When Patlai realized that it would be impossible to stop the group from entering the theater, she stepped onstage to explain the situation to the audience and ask them to stay until it was resolved. Meanwhile, the group of intruders began shouting homophobic slurs at the play’s viewers. Both the intruders and their victims began making calls to the police, and Patlai called a prominent human rights journalist to ask for help finding an attorney. When Patlai looked outside the theater to see whether the police were on their way, she saw a man waving a black-and-yellow striped flag and holding a poster with more homophobic slurs. She also noticed that one of the men in the theater was wearing a T-shirt that said “SERB.”
When police officers did arrive, the situation only got worse. “The police acted like they’d known these people [the SERB activists] for a long time, like they didn’t care at all about the disorderly conduct in the theater or the disruption of the show,” Patlai told Meduza. “The police didn’t check even one of these people’s papers. They acted as though they and SERB were on the same team. They knew ahead of time that there were minors in the room, and all they wanted to do was deal with that fact.”
According to Patlai, the group of homophobic protesters also made an effort to enable police to target individual audience members: “When the police arrived, the provocateurs started a fight with one of the people in the audience. One of the women [among the SERB activists] shouted, “He’s hitting a woman!” while another provocateur pushed the audience member onto the ground […] The police immediately put handcuffs on him and took him out to their car without stopping to realize the whole thing was a provocation,” the director explained.
Patlai was taken to a police station alongside that audience member and the young man who said he was 19: Police determined that he was in fact a minor. Even while Patlai was in custody, police did nothing to stop the SERB activists from targeting her. She told Meduza, “While I was testifying, the door was open, and they [the SERB activists] commented on everything I said: ‘Sodom, drown them, shoot them.’” The police did not interfere, she said.
Only Anton Tkachuk, the audience member who was pushed to the ground, was ultimately cited for disorderly conduct. He spent the night in the police station, and Patlai said Teatr.doc would likely assist him if he is forced to pay a fine. The young man who was arrested along with them spoke to police alongside his father for an extended period of time, but the children’s inspector who questioned them did not tell Patlai anything about what actions investigators might take against the young man or Teatr.doc.
Despite the disruption and Patlai’s arrest, Teatr.doc ultimately completed their performance with about 80 percent of the audience still in attendance.
Given that Coming Out of the Closet is not a new play for the theater, Patlai speculated that the recent homophobic attacks against it must be related to some external political cause. The director said she felt hatred and hate-based attacks are generally on the rise in Russia but added that the upcoming September 8 elections in Moscow might also have played a role in the timing of the two most recent interruptions.
“Homophobia is a lasting resource in [Russian] politics. I’m not involved in politics,” Patlai said. “I put on shows about love so that people can start understanding each other and finding something in common with one another.” She argued that the logic behind the “gay propaganda” law is misguided: “It can’t be that every instance of the word ‘gay’ is propaganda. That’s nonsense. And the fact that we calmly relay stories about real people doesn’t qualify as propagandizing homosexuality.”
Summary by Hilah Kohen