Being gay in America is not like it used to be. Less than 50 years ago, very few businesses welcomed openly gay people – even in New York City. It wasn’t until the Stonewall Riots in 1969 that the modern gay rights movement became a subject of mainstream political discourse. It would be almost 35 years later before Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage in 2003. I’m only 24 years old but I can remember when Ellen DeGeneres was effectively driven off primetime television for coming out publicly.
Although many years have passed since Stonewall, you could get whiplash trying to follow how quickly the debate has shifted. The US Supreme Court this year struck down DOMA, a law signed by Bill Clinton with broad bi-partisan support only 17 years ago. Today, same-sex marriage is recognized in thirteen states and several more are considering policy that will increase that number. It gets easier to be gay in America every single year, each new milestone compounding on the last, until the steadfast convictions of the previous generation seem almost unthinkable today.
That said, there are still many countries around the world that haven’t changed their minds about LGBT equality as fast as the United States. Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation has garnered an outpouring of support from LGBT groups all over the world. Many are expressing the same frustrations that manifested into the Stonewall Riots in 1969. This Thursday, September 12 the fight returns to Stonewall at a burlesque benefit for the Russian LGBT Network.
Russian Pride NYC is a burlesque and variety show from New York City and an “expression of love and support to our brothers and sisters in Russia”. All proceeds will go to The Russian LGBT Network. If you’re in New York City this week and you want to show your support, you are guaranteed a night of amazing burlesque, dance, song, Russian disco, rage, and beauty at a historic location for gay rights.
The Royal Baritarian Players, a happily married boylesque duo from New York City, are co-producing the event. One of them, Lawrence Gullo, was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself, his inspiration and the upcoming Russian Pride benefit on Thursday:
Russia’s anti-gay laws have been getting a lot of attention lately and the response from LGBT groups has been widespread, from vodka boycotts to protests planned at the upcoming Olympic games. Why did you personally decide to get involved?
I noticed that a lot of people, specifically Americans, weren’t sure what they could do to help. Politics don’t work the same way over there as they do here, and boycotts, while drawing attention to the issue, aren’t necessarily going to put as much pressure on the powers that be as we may hope. I think it’s most important we start reaching out, LGBT community to LGBT community, not just USA to Russia.
My husband is from Moscow, and I grew up loving Russian culture from the folk stories to the political history to the pop music. I would love to some day have my husband show me his home city, but at the moment he is afraid to go home. And I’m afraid for the young people whose country is condemning them just when they are becoming more visible.
Can you tell me about your connection to the Russian LGBT Network and why you chose this group specifically for the Russian Pride benefit?
I wanted to make sure that the money we raise goes directly to the LGBT community in Russia. We chose the LGBT Network because they are multi-regional, and in addition to monitoring hate crimes and injustices with the intention of exposing them to the international audience, they provide legal and psychological support to disenfranchised LGBT people who need it. To a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person living in Russia, these resources can mean the difference between giving up and staying strong.
The Russian Pride benefit features a huge list of burlesque performers from all over the country, including some big names in NYC burlesque. Can you tell me about the support you’ve received from the burlesque community while planning this event?
Feeling incredibly upset and powerless after hearing yet another case of a gay Russian being abused, knowing that person could be my husband, and very likely someone just as precious to their friends and lover, I reached out to my friends in the burlesque community. I asked if they would have any interest in putting together a benefit show. The response I received was overwhelming, and it made me so proud. I even have these two incredible women, JZ Bich who directs Hypergender Burlesque, and impeccable dancer Cassandra Rosebeetle, who volunteered to produce this event with me without hesitation. They are completely amazing.
Can you tell me about your history of performing burlesque? How did you get started and what keeps you going? Who are The Royal Baritarian Players?
I began doing burlesque when I was at university in London, and when I came home to New York, found that I fell in with a similar experimental crowd. What I love about burlesque is the celebration of sexuality and gender expression that is more diverse than any other art form I’ve seen. I don’t think anyone should be tasked with representing their entire minority, but many times when I perform, I am the first transgender man the audience has ever knowingly seen. I feel I have a responsibility to present them as something beautiful, worthy of respect, and truthful. When I feel I’ve accomplished that, it is the most amazing feeling.
The Royal Baritarian Players are my husband Fyodor Pavlov and I, and the work that we do. Together we create illustrations, comics, puppets, and performance art pieces. We made Baritaria as a symbolic country that would always celebrate queer people and history as a proud heritage, as we hope our home countries will some day celebrate their own, instead of condemning it or sweeping it under the rug.
Burlesque performers are a generous lot and often work with charity-minded burlesque producers to benefit anything from homeless youth to cancer research. What is it about the burlesque community that inspires this generosity, in your opinion?
This may sound cheesy, and I apologize in advance. Burlesque performers are no strangers to street harassment, negative stereotypes, cultural disapproval, and vulnerability. I’d like to think that this tends to make them more sensitive to the suffering of others. Also, between balancing day jobs, costume expenses, and tip money; donating our artistic efforts is sometimes the best we can do – and hopefully we can deliver!
What message do you want sent to the LGBT community in Russia?
This is not about America and Russia, not about politicians and profits. This is about us and you. We love you. We support you. We want you to stay safe, stay strong, and not give up.
Burlesque is, by definition, a reflection of the society that creates it. Burlesque would not exist if it had nothing to satire. Who performing on Thursday makes you laugh the most?
That would have to be my boylesque brother, Matt Knife. He is a theatre kid who costumes for a porn studio. He is a complete goofball, campy gay boy that would fit right into a comedy sketch about hairdressers, but he has this amazing dark side to him too. He has a bit of a deranged mind that bubbles up through his teddybear image, and I love that. He turns the pop culture gay archetype on its head.
Thank you so much to Lawrence for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. If you’re in New York, or headed that way, be sure to check out RUSSIAN PRIDE at STONEWALL – A Burlesque Show to Benefit the Russian LGBT Community, this Thursday, September 12 at the historic Stonewall Inn.