I got my first hate mail. Well, not actually mail and not my first, but I’ll explain that later. My first hate comment since I began writing this blog on LGBTQ topics in January was short and to the point: “Dirty fag.” I can’t say I was surprised, except perhaps that it took so long. (In seven months I’ve had over 3100 views by visitors from 67 countries.) One friend even noted it was a sign that I’m “reaching the right audience, and not preaching to the converted.” True enough, and an apt metaphor.
The cowardly act of schoolyard name-calling was hidden behind a curious Twitter handle: Girolamo Savonarola. In case you’re not up on Italian Renaissance history, Savonarola was a 15th century Dominican friar who castigated the rich and powerful in Florence with fiery apocalyptic sermons. His reform campaigns included the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, in which objects deemed “occasions of sin” were burned – masks and carnival gowns; playing cards and musical instruments; “immoral” books by Ovid and Boccaccio; paintings by Botticelli.
I know Savonarola because I made a documentary about him in 1998, the 500th anniversary of his death (A year after his most famous Bonfire, he was torched in the same city square.) I referred to him as the “Renaissance Ayatollah.” Fifteen years later he has returned to haunt me with his own derogatory name: “Dirty fag.” The fact that it comes in response to a post I wrote about the Russian anti-gay laws and ensuing controversy is all too perfect – in more ways than I can count. I offer a few examples.
On the day I received the comment, the Huffington Post reported that the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia had given a sermon the day before warning his congregation that recognition of same-sex marriages by Western countries was a portent of doom. It’s as if he was taking a page directly out of Savonarola’s hymnal:
“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything in our powers to ensure that sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law, because that would mean that the nation has embarked on a path of self-destruction.”
Politics of Culture
In the last few days it’s also been reported that Moscow museum curator Marat Guleman was fired from his job for refusing to censor an exhibition critical of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. Authorities also allege that the artist, Vasily Slonov, used symbols of Sochi 2014 without permission. More frightening than any allusion to Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities is a parallel that could be drawn to the Nazi destruction of so-called “degenerate art.”
British actor and writer Stephen Fry took such comparisons further in an Open Letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee. He accused Russian President Putin of “making scapegoats of gay people just as Hitler did Jews” and proposed an “absolute ban” on the Winter Games in protest against the recent Russian legislation banning “gay propaganda.”
“Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment… Let us not forget that Olympic events used not only to be athletic, they used to include cultural competitions. Let us realize that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics.”
Keeping up-to-date with the shifting positions of Russian officials or the IOC on these issues is like trying to juggle Olympic torches while speed skating. Some reports mention the inane prospect that the IOC was considering sanctions against athletes who showed any kind of support, vocally or visually, for LGBT equality during the Games. Seriously?!
“When morality triumphs, disgusting things happen.”
– French Symbolist author Remy de Gourmont (1907)
The most disturbing reports to come out of Russia recently tell of neo-Nazi gangs who use social media to lure gay targets to a meeting place, and then humiliate, beat and torture the unsuspecting victims. “We do not like homosexuals,” said one gang member. “If it was up to me, I’d kill them but the government doesn’t allow that.” The implication is that their actions ARE allowed, or at least will go unpunished.
It’s another chapter out of Savonarola’s playbook. In the friar’s “Republic of Virtue” he encouraged gangs of youths to roam the streets and terrorize wealthy Florentine citizens who dressed too ostentatiously, drank, gambled, or otherwise acted immorally. It’s not a great leap to imagine these angelic enforcers luring the reviled sodomites, whom Savonarola also railed against, into vulnerable situations exactly as the young Russian thugs are doing.
Observers have noted a marked increase in violence against the LGBTQ community in Russia in recent months. One Russian MP has even suggested public floggings for homosexuals. If you’ve the stomach for it, Pink News compiled a list of the 20 Most Shocking Anti-Gay News Stories from Russia So Far. A quick glance makes one vile comment on my blog from an anonymous tweep hardly worth mentioning.
But I did say I’ve received hate mail before. When I produced culture programs for Radio Netherlands Worldwide, I regularly interviewed gay authors and other LGBTQ artists. A listener from South Africa once wrote a letter wishing me dead if I ever broadcast another gay story. I didn’t reply to him directly. However, the following week my program included a feature about a gay Israeli director’s film about AIDS. And, lo and behold, I didn’t die. So if you search this blog looking for the comment from Girolamo Savonarola calling me a dirty fag, you won’t find it. It will remain in the eternal purgatory of Pending Approval – something I will never grant.