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Russian Gay Slang

Back when I was thinking about going for a masters degree in Slavic linguistics I put this essay together as a writing sample.  As slang changes very quickly in every culture, I make no claims to current accuracy…


Хочу мальчика, а кругом одни пидарасы…
(I want a boy, but all around there’s nothing but fags…)
Heard nightly at Chance, a Moscow gay club

If we take seriously the notion that language shapes consciousness and vice versa, then it is important to examine slang as an area where new words and modes of thought develop. Currently, there are no words in the Russian language that provide positive or neutral expressions in common usage regarding homosexuality and gays. However, in the wake of the relatively recent repeal of the law against homosexual activity, a new, more open consciousness has begun to push at the limits of language, giving rise to words and expressions and co-opting old ones in order to convey new sensibilities.

Until 1992, homosexuality was punishable in Russia under the Criminal Code of the Soviet Union by up to five years imprisonment. Muzhelozhestvo, which specifically connotes anal sex between two men, is widely considered perversion or even a form of mental illness. In addition to the legal sanctions against homosexual activity, police, the KGB, and roving gangs of thugs, supported by the unspoken consent of the public at large, frequented gay cruising areas where they threatened, robbed, or even beat gay men and those suspected of being gay. Gay men, if found out, were also in constant danger of blackmail or losing their jobs. Though the current climate in Russia has changed somewhat, with discussions of homosexuality in the press and on television talk shows, attitudes are slow to change. An examination of the vocabulary used to describe gays and their activities reveals not only a negative attitude towards homosexuality, but also certain preconceptions about exactly what gay men do when they are together.

When the subject of homosexuality is broached in conversation, there are not many formal words that can be used in the discussion. Goluboi (or in the plural, golubye), literally light blue, is the term used by gays to identify themselves. While the etymology of this usage is not clear, one idea holds that it began in Leningrad, where local gays identified each other by the light blue shirts that they wore while cruising the streets or frequenting gay haunts. The original color association may have come from French – homosexual regions of Paris were once known as blue. There is also a French book about homosexual love in literature or the fine arts which is called L’Amour Bleu[1]. This word has passed from the subculture’s slang into general usage, though in mainstream media it remains nonstandard Russian and, when used in print, is enclosed in quotation marks. Though the gay connotation attached to this word is widely understood, many people are still not comfortable with using it in this context.

As English loan words continue to make the transition into Russian, the word gei has also come to mean homosexual – especially in conversational usage or the tabloid press. However, because of the word’s foreign origin and relatively limited linguistic notoriety, this word also cannot fill the language gap. While for some speakers the use of foreign words may feel uncomfortable because of the perceived air of haughtiness associated with them, we must also consider the relatively small audience that understands English in general, and the word specifically.

Casual interlocutors may turn to street slang such as pedik, pidor and pidoras, all of which come from the original literary word pederast, which carries in Russian, as in English, the meaning of sexual relations between a man and a boy. While these words may be used in a conversation between men, they are considered rude and improper for use by or in the presence of a woman.

In prison slang, or fenia, there are several words related to homosexuality. However, these are used exclusively to describe situations in which one person is used by others to satisfy their sexual appetites. Words like koziol (goat), petukh (rooster), or greben’ (a large cockscomb) connote the passive nature of such relationships in which the abused is humiliated. Since such a man is forced into this purely physical relationship with no regard to his own preferences or feelings, he is considered less than a “real man.” Subjugated to the will of others, no form of mutual respect or acceptance is generally considered possible in the prison situation, as men satisfy their sexual desires with other men out of “necessity” rather than from feelings of love or intimacy, using rape and coercion to overcome those weaker than themselves.

In “polite” social settings, the words manernyi (mannered) and neformal’nyi (informal) can be used as euphemisms, thus allowing people to express themselves using a vague or indistinct word to discuss a topic that they find uncomfortable to deal with directly. Since euphemisms form from a need to circumlocute taboo words or notions, the presence of these words is yet another indicator of the negative attitude towards homosexuality in the Russian culture.

The word gomoseksualist would seem to provide a neutral term. Translated simply as “homosexual,” this is the word used in standard Russian. Adopted from Greek, the prefix homo- indicates “same,” as opposed to the Latin meaning “man.” This word only describes sexual relationships, without any reference to the emotional and social factors observed in gay subculture. Perceived as medical or academic, the word has no psychological space for the human factor, but rather describes a condition. However, on a deeper linguistic level there is a second sense conveyed in this word that may or may not be perceived consciously by the speaker. In order to see it, one must look to its heterosexual counterpart and its morphology.

Derived again from Greek, the prefix hetero- is placed in the beginning of the word to form geteroseksual, translated simply as “heterosexual.” But the words are not parallel in structure, as geteroseksual lacks the final Russian suffix -ist. This suffix indicates adherence to a philosophy or manmade construct that does not exist in nature. For example, marksist, ateist. The underlying notion at work is that while heterosexuality is the natural state of being, homosexuality is a conscious choice made by the individual in opposition to the norm.

Like gomoseksualist, the counterpart geteroseksual also carries medical or bookish connotations which make it awkward in conversational speech, necessitating the use of other words for less formal discussions. Fulfilling this role, the word normal’nyi (normal) is often used to mean straight, which leads to another interesting point. By claiming normality for the heterosexual population, the inference can be made that gays must be nenormal’nyi, a word whose meanings run from “not good,” to “mentally ill” or “off balance,” to “abnormal.” The word natural and its adjectival form natural’nyi are also used in slang to mean “heterosexual,” but the effect remains the same, leaving the idea that homosexuals, if not natural, must be unnatural.

Further exploration of words used to describe relations between homosexuals – most always regarding sexual activity without reference to social relationships – also indicate a general ignorance of the scope of interaction that can be manifest between two men. For example, a common question when heterosexuals are presented with the fact that Ivan and Sergei are a couple is “which one is the husband?” Even within the gay community, there is often a delineation between muzh (husband) and zhena (wife). These boundaries are generally set exclusively on the basis of sexual activity – more specifically, by the role each partner plays in anal sex. An aktiv (active person) is defined as a man because of his parallel role to a man having sex with a woman, while a passiv (passive person) is defined as a woman because of his receiving role. While the word universal exists within the gay subculture, the stereotype within the larger Russian community – as well as a significant portion of the gay community itself – is that a gay man must choose and exclusively play out one role or the other.

Indeed, this stereotype is not dropped at the door on entering the gay subculture. Many words that are collected on web sites dedicated to cataloging gay slang deal specifically with the passive-active relationship between sexual partners. Interestingly, there are many more names to describe the passive partner – many of them with negative connotations. Devka (girl) and liutaia devka (ferocious girl) place an accent on the effeminate qualities stereotypically associated with the passive partner. Other words such as davalka (literally, a girl who gives herself sexually to anyone; promiscuous), zhenshchina (woman) or baba (peasant woman) go even further toward insulting the person to whom they refer. Prevalence of such words indicates that the negative attitudes found in the straight community regarding homosexuality have not been eradicated in the gay community.

As Russian gays are exposed to a more open subculture from the West and allowed to express themselves more freely, some trends begin to materialize, most notably the co-opting of negative slang, the invention of new slang, and the art of camp, known in some Russian circles as khabal’stvo.

For example, pidor, pidoras, and pedik have all been co-opted from the more pervasive heterosexual slang and are used to simply indicate that a person is gay. The word pidovka has been added to the pantheon, adding a little spice and play. In addition to wide use of the word golubye, the word pidorva takes the negatively charged pidor and puts a new spin on it. These examples resembles the political use of the word “queer” in the United States. Other examples of co-opted language are podruga (girlfriend) and devushka (girl) which are used playfully among friends to address one another, as well as to refer to oneself.

New slang develops in the form of an insider’s code that indicates group membership. When gays wish to conjecture on another’s orientation or inconspicuously announce that another person is a homosexual they might say On po teme (He fits that theme) or, less frequently, on tematichnyi (He is thematic).

Last, the earlier underground art of khabal’stvo[2] has lately come to enjoy its share of popular attention from enthusiasts of teleconferences and web sites on the Internet. In keeping with the older meanings of rudeness, one modern definition for the co-opted word includes any behavior that is immodest or outlandish, but excluding boorish or loutish manners[3], as indicated by the epigraph for this paper. However, another source gives a more involved explanation that khabal’stvo involves humor in which the speaker often makes fun of himself. The mastery of this slang involves soliciting laughter from a group and lightening the mood of those gathered without it being at the expense of a concrete person. Inflection and pronunciation often play a role in the delivery of seemingly commonplace phrases[4]. In these ways, khabal’stvo is similar to “camp” speech of English-speaking gays.

The scope of this paper is far too narrow to cover all aspects of linguistic development occurring now in the slang of the Russian gay subculture. Further study could uncover an interesting area in which sociolinguistic development may be observed, providing examples of language change in response to the need to describe new ways of understanding relationships and community.


Notes

[1] I. Kon. Lunnyi svet na zare. Liki i maski odnopoloi liubvi. Olimp, Moscow, 1998. p. 12.

[2]The word khabal’stvo can trace its roots to several old forms. In Russian, khabal is related to nakhal (impudent), smut’ian (troublemaker), and grubiian (boor). The verb for khabalit’ means rugat’sia (to curse, swear), buianit’ (to make a row, to brawl), or ozornichat’ (to be naughty, get into mischief). In Ukrainian, the work khabal’ carries the meaning of liubovnik (lover), while the direct word khabal’stvo carries the connotation liubovnye shashni (amorous intrigues). The original root for the word is not known, but two suggestions are that it is connected with khabit’ meaning portit’ (to spoil) or with ancient Hebrew ha bal which means “master.” See citation for khabal, M. Vasmer. Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo iazyka. Azbuka, St. Petersburg,. 1995. Vol. IV, p. 213.

[3] “Bce 3anuc4eHHo…” http://www.aquanet.co.il/vip/roman_g/

[4] Spellbound. “VNACHALE BYLO SLOVO….” USENET conference relcom.glb, April 30, 1998.

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