An Interview with the Film’s Director, Michael Lucas
When Director Michael Lucas learned that the president of his birth country, Vladimir Putin, had just signed into law a prohibition against any form of gay affirmative publication or advocacy, he knew he had to do something. As the founder and CEO of Lucas Entertainment, Michael had already released his first documentary film in 2012 entitled, “Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land,” which won him awards for its honest portrayal of the thriving Israeli LGBT community in Tel Aviv.
But Michael knew that what was happening in his native Russia was different and much more dangerous. The “homosexual propaganda” bill, as the law in Russia has been called, is so broad and vague that it could include almost anything: a teacher who tells a student that homosexuality is not evil, a parent that tells her child that homosexuality is normal, or anyone who makes gay affirmative statements considered “accessible to a person underage” is now subject to arrest and fines. Even worse, on July 3rd, 2013, president Putin signed into law a bill banning the adoption of Russian-born children, not only to gay couples, but also to any couple or single parent living in any country where marriage equality exists. This bill also includes the threat that Russian authorities could remove children from their own families if the parents are either gay or lesbian, or suspected of being gay or lesbian.
All of these troubling developments and the implications for the Russian LGBT community are the focus of Michael’s latest documentary, “The Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda.” In this film, Michael travels to Russia and interviews a range of individuals in the LGBT community who are impacted by these laws: young men who have been beaten in Moscow, families who are leaving Russia to protect their children, drag queens who risk their safety to travel to work, and common citizens on the street who explain their view of how homosexuality is equated with pedophilia. And, in one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, Michael risks his own safety arranging an interview with parliament member Vitaly Milanov, the author of the St. Petersburg “anti-LGBT propaganda law.”
Michael Lucas is no stranger to controversy and is particularly well-known for his activism and outspokenness. He was born Andrei Treivas Bregman in Moscow in 1972; his father was an engineer and his mother a teacher of Russian literature. Like many Soviet Jews, Lucas is not very religious, but he is quite proud of his heritage; the core of Lucas’ worldview is his Jewish identity— and particularly his deep affinity for the state of Israel. His time growing up in the Soviet Union, which was notorious for its anti-Semitism, meant that, like many Russian Jews, Lucas had to repress his identity. He describes that he was alone in Russia, a country with little tolerance for Judaism or homosexuality. “I did not have friends,” he admits. “The teachers couldn’t stand me. But I felt I was special.”
In 1998 Lucas founded his own production company, Lucas Entertainment, with money he earned from working as a male escort. The success of this company was profiled in a 2009 New York Magazine feature about individuals who made it to the top of their profession, even after arriving to the city with very little. He is a frequent contributor to The Advocate, The Huffington Post, and Pink News. FrontPage Magazine called him, “the most mainstreamed, provocative, and controversial figure in gay adult entertainment today,” and his most well-known adult film, “La Dolce Vita,” is reported to be the most expensive gay porn ever made: with a budget of $250,000 and multiple celebrity cameos.
At the time of this interview, Lucas is busily preparing for the release of the documentary. He is well aware that this film comes at time when Russia is very much in the world spotlight; having just hosted the Sochi 2014 Olympics, Vladimir Putin has not backed his country away from the world stage in taking aim at Ukraine. To understand the current affairs of the LGBT community under Putin, Michael explains, is to get enmeshed within an epic philosophical vision of Russia’s role in the world. According to Maria Snegovaya of The Washington Post, one of the authors Putin loves to quote is philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who wrote, “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness.” This work emphasizes Russia’s exceptional spiritual status, devotion to Orthodox faith, and a belief in autocracy.
You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing another nationalistic author, Nikolai Berdyaev, Putin talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world. Whereas in this view the West is thought to be rotten to the core, weak, but yet so powerful because of its lust for power, Russia is seen to be spiritually pure yet plagued by a lack of self-assertion and unmet potential.
As a native Russian himself and prolific activist for LGBT rights, there are few voices other than Michael Lucas’ who can offer such direct insights into the current state of Russian politics and the LGBT community. A very busy man, Director Michael Lucas was gracious to offer his time in talking about his latest documentary, “The Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda.”
Robert Frashure: Thank you so much for sharing this film and taking the time to talk with us about it. The first question is about the inspiration for this film. Why was it so important for you to make it, and what do you hope viewers will take from it?
Michael Lucas: My reason for making the film is simple: Ever since my years as a confused gay child in the former Soviet Union, it has been my dream to show the world what it is like to belong to the LGBT community in my former homeland. But the recent antigay legislation and vigilante actions there have made this project more relevant and urgent than I had imagined.
Essentially, I want to bring attention to what is happening in Russia and I want the conversation to last longer than the span of the Olympics. There was a lot of attention prior to the games, and that attention must continue. The world has seen bits and pieces, but we don’t have the full picture of what the LGBT community in Russia is like, and what it is going through. That’s what I hope to show in my film.
RF: How did the current political situation and new changes in Russian law make it challenging/treacherous to make this film?
ML: Filming took place in Moscow over the course of about three weeks. I am the producer, and I co-directed it with Scott Stern. (You see very little of me in the film; I didn’t want to distract from the movie’s real subjects.) We went at the right time: the first anti-gay law had been introduced but not signed yet. Having grown up in Russia, I knew that the government was not going to stop there, and that this would be the beginning of the end for the period of LGBT rights and freedoms that emerged under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Because of that laws that were passed after filming, I think it would be nearly impossible for me to make this film now–though even at the time I was already dealing with blatant, old-fashioned homophobia. That led to some challenges while filming.
RF: The segment in the film with you speaking with the architect of the anti-gay propaganda law, parliament member Vitaly Milonov, was gripping to watch. How were you able to keep your composure when talking with him?
ML: It certainly wasn’t easy to get parliament member Vitaly Milonov to sit down with me for an interview. I had to lie that I was an independent journalist from American TV; he was not about to give an interview to a gay man working on a film like mine. And yes, it was also a real challenge for me not to leap up and strangle him during our conversation. I am not someone who keeps quiet easily, and he was spewing such vile, homophobic lies that my hands were shaking. But I did have the chance to tell him what I really thought after the interview concluded. That felt good.
It was also hard to keep my cool while interviewing random people in the streets of Moscow, including the Russian women who told me that gays adopted children in order to sexually molest them.
RF: Yes, about those Russian women! I was particularly disturbed by the Russian women who appear in the beginning of the film and claim that gay men wish to adopt children in order to satisfy their own erotic needs. Where do these deeply homophobic ideas come from: the Russian Orthodox Church, or other conservative groups?
ML: There are deep roots of homophobia in Russian culture, as in most world cultures, and yes, some of that is channeled through religion. But the recent explosion of antigay feeling comes from the Putin government, which is scapegoating the LGBT community and deliberately spreading hate and fear. The official rhetoric basically equates homosexuals with pedophiles, and encourages Russian people to believe that gays are a danger to the family.
RF: Is Putin setting himself as the world’s conservative ideologue? In the film, the LGBT activists comment that he is trying to reinstate the old moralistic division between Russia and the “West,” in which the “West” would signify the more liberal communities in America and Western Europe. I have read that Putin is quick to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin—writers who argued that the organic spiritual purity of Russia was being corrupted by the rationalistic, materialistic West.
ML: Yes, it’s tied to Putin’s nationalist strategy, which ties LGBT rights to Western “decadence,” and defines Russian identity in opposition to that.
In that way, as in many others, it is a close cousin of Hitler’s campaign against “degenerate” Jewish and gay art, which he employed in order to help define “real”
German identity by contrast.
RF: How are various individuals in the Russian LGBT community reacting to the new laws: are they leaving, or acquiescing to them?
The Russian gay community is very divided right now. Some are leaving, or trying to leave. But others–wrongly, in my opinion–think that those laws might end up being good for community visibility. It’s true that a crisis can sometimes mobilize a community in positive ways, as AIDS arguably did for the gay community in America. But I fear that Russia is not as ready for that yet as America was in the 1980s.
RF: I have a question about the figure of the psychiatrist and psychologist in the film. It is interesting that a few of the LGBT people interviewed said that their parents wanted to bring them to a psychiatrist or psychologist when they came out to them, in order to “cure” them. I’d hope that going to a psychologist here in the US would be affirmative and support them in being free to express their sexuality.
Are there many LGBT-affirmative psychologists in Russia, or do psychologists in Russia typically not provide support for LGBT individuals?
ML: Unfortunately, no. Psychotherapy does not exist in Russia in the way that it exists in America and other Western countries. It is considered something only for sick, mentally unstable people. And to the extent that it does exist, it is not as progressive-minded as it is in the West today.
RF: I have a question about the political value of film and art. At Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, we are trying to further distance psychology from its pathologizing tendencies, and one of our initiatives is called “Sexuality Tomorrow:” an interdisciplinary conversation and exploration of how art, psychology, and other creative disciplines can promote a further liberation of our erotic selves and its possibilities.
I am wondering if art, including films and visual works, that depicts men and women showing same-sex affection for each other could also be effective in advancing political causes for LGBT liberation too?
ML: Yes, absolutely. Everything that people do to protest what’s happening in Russia does help, if only by keeping the issue on people’s minds and in the news, which is a big part of the battle. The more we speak up, the more we will be heard. Volunteer activists associated with Queer Nation NY, Gays Without Borders, and other grassroots collectives around the world–the ones that don’t get funding from venture capitalists or major businesses, as many of the more established gay lobby groups do–have poured enormous time and energy into things like street actions, boycotts, and targeted strikes at cultural or corporate institutions. Those actions have been very successful at raising awareness about LGBT rights in Russia.
I think we should support and participate in these campaigns, on whatever level we can as individuals. At the very least, as a matter of principle, don’t buy Russian vodka for your parties or order it in bars!
RF: (Laughs) Agreed! Well finally, what are your plans for this film?
ML: When I was doing publicity for my first documentary, “Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land,” I spent a year taking it to different film festivals before signing with a distributor to release the film to the public. Since this new documentary involves more time-sensitive issues, I have spoken with the same distribution company, Breaking Glass Pictures, to get the film released in April. The most important thing to me is that as many people as possible have a chance to see it soon. I don’t need the awards.
RF: Thank you so much, Michael, for taking the time to talk with us about your film. Good luck with it!
ML: You are very welcome. It has been a pleasure speaking with you as well, Robert.