Souls of Silence
In 2012, in the wake of my first, life-altering trip to Spain, I wrote this book titled Souls of Silence, whose plot explores the intersection of homophobia, mental health, systemic corruption, workplace bullying, medical malpractice, immigration, and classism. That's a pretty complex sociopolitical background for what is, at its core, a love story, and it's that complex on purpose because it's realistic. Set in 2000s, it follows the story of romantic relationship between Pablo Velázquez, a Spanish professional football player in his twenties, at the outset of his meteoric athletic career, and Andrey "Andrew" Gordovsky, a Russian doctor eight years his senior, who, without realizing his sexuality ever before, struggles both emotionally, in a dysfunctional marriage with a woman, and economically, working in dead-end jobs in the ubiquitously corrupt public industry of his country, amidst its overall stagnating economy. Meeting by chance on one of Barcelona's beaches, at the most vulnerable points of their journeys, the protagonists find love that with years keeps growing despite multiple dimensions of oppression, across long distance, transcending the barriers of class, culture, and radically different existential experiences.
This story is not a fairy tale. Not only does it meticulously describe the trauma of homophobic oppression, common for the two, the chronic trauma of economic oppression of the Russian protagonist and its consequences for his mental health; but also, in the last part of the book, where a happily-ever-after ending is normally expected, Pablo gets diagnosed with a rare and fatal heart disease. In the absence of a compatible heart transplant, he dies within nine months, the same day his daughter is born via surrogacy. Three years later, in the epilogue, Andrew is seen single, raising his daughter along with Pablo's parents, without revealing if they ever became aware of the nature of his relationship with their deceased son.
The particularity of this story lies in explicitly encouraging critical thinking on the part of the reader. In each of nine parts, the story is told from a subjective perspective of either protagonist, like in a diary, which, on the one hand, creates the sense of intimacy and trust with the reader.
On the other hand, this narrative structure, constantly alternating between Barcelona and Moscow, between the realities of middle-class life and economic struggle, between the patriarchy of Spanish professional sports and the systemic corruption of Russian academia and healthcare, prompts the reader to reflect why the same events in their relationship, and even the experience of internalized homophobia and self-acceptance, turn out to be so different for Pablo and Andrew.
There's a number of reasons why this story doesn't fit with the conventions of the mainstream LGBT culture, as we see it these days. At the same time, these reasons make it groundbreaking and constitute the added value that it brings to the social justice table, as well as the resonance it may create in the larger culture.
The narrative shifts the focus away from hypersexuality and physicality, so commonly centered in LGBT-related stories, and puts it onto universally relatable emotional experiences, like belonging, vulnerability, shame, courage, the power of dreams, and sense of connection with another human being so deep that nothing can destroy it. Following my years of studying empathy, its inner workings, and common barriers to it, this purposeful focus on emotions, rather than circumstances or identity, conveys a crucial message to straight/cis audiences: love, intimacy, connection are experienced by LGBT people exactly as they are experienced by the majority, and their deprivation informs trauma per se. Then, this trauma gets further overlaid by stigma, violence, and discrimination in other areas of life.
With regard to cultural expectations, it's remarkable that over the years, some gay people who read the book told me that they were disappointed to see that my protagonists have sex only once throughout their mostly long-distance relationship, finally reuniting in Barcelona when Pablo's been already diagnosed, and then the rapid deterioration of his condition makes physical intimacy life-threatening.
At the same time, lots of straight people reached out to tell me how much they were shaken by the story and its ending, and I could see how my storytelling approach, based on centering emotion to build empathy, communicating truth straight into their hearts without distractions and noise, effectively converted people from silent accomplices of homophobia into critically aware LGBT activists. This effect doesn't happen by chance but by design.
The story addresses and challenges the most common and the most harmful stereotypes about homosexuality — the choice stereotype, the emasculation stereotype, and the shallowness stereotype.
Here's why this is crucial. Along with dehumanization, these stereotypes inform the major mechanisms by which homophobia operates in everyday life and drives violence. And despite all the progress made by the LGBTQ movement in the recent decades, why do these stereotypes still exist in the culture?
Years of multidisciplinary research led me to this understanding: the quality of media representation of marginalized groups matters more than the quantity of that representation. Even when representation becomes vast but remains mostly stereotyped and caricatured, as opposed to doing justice to LGBT people's lived experiences, then it does little to dismantle oppression and contributes a lot to perpetuate it.
Unfortunately, even in the most progressive countries, the prevalent representation of gay and trans characters continues to heavily rely on LGBT stereotypes. Made this way, stories, movies, and TV shows can be marketed fast and easy, leveraging the public's confirmation bias. There's little, if any, contextual understanding of the consequences. More often than not, in the industry formally applauded for its social progressivism, producers in fact prioritize profits over the well-being of LGBT people off the screen.
This issue is compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority of LGBT media visibility is still created by white, cisgender, upper-middle-class Western gay men and their privileged lifestyles. Not only does it erase the lived experiences of the far more vulnerable majority of the LGBTQ community worldwide, but it also reinforces the myth, particularly popular among the far-right, that homosexuality is a lifestyle, not an individuality trait.
So in my book, I felt called to create an alternative representation — more intersectional, more authentic, more relatable to cis/straight audiences, and at the same time doing more justice to the lived experiences of most LGBT people. Even though this representation may feel odd to audiences conditioned to consume segregated and stereotyped portrayals of homosexual people, it's essential for the impact.
Which leads me to the next point.
Souls of Silence doesn't center the homosexuality of the protagonists but their love, at the same time dissecting homophobia from the intersectional perspective, along with corruption, classism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and other social issues that most people are personally familiar with. To elaborate the inherent link between those problems, the story shows the sociopolitical reality of post-Soviet Russia, where this link can be seen with more transparency than anywhere, and where, just like everywhere, it boils down to the nature of power.
That is the most important emphasis of the whole book: racism, homophobia, patriarchy, classism and all kinds of systemic oppression at their core have nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the kind of power being exercised.
Today's Russia is a perfect, transparent, living example of the kind of power that all systemic oppression stems from. That is power over, as opposed to power among and power to. It's the most ancient, the most primitive, and the most inefficient kind of power. In simple words, it's the system where power, being the ability to affect change, is seen and treated as a finite resource, which, due to its perceived scarcity, has to be hoarded in the hands of the few. In that system, sharing power — by giving voice, freedom, dignity, and opportunity to others — is seen as diminishing the power of who possesses it and therefore violently resisted.
Power over is by design inherently related to corruption, abuse, embezzlement, and other issues that sabotage economic and social efficiency. It's the opposite of democracy, which is the embodiment of power with and power among — systems where power isn't a zero-sum game, where it doesn't run out and isn't decreased by sharing.
If we think about power over not just in politics but also in social context, the common underpinning of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and classism becomes very obvious. Historically, they were introduced for the self-interest of those holding power over, and then an ideology was retrofitted to rationalize them. Oppressive ideology, by contrast to what we're commonly conditioned to think, is the consequence of the nature of power, not its source. And you don't have to look for the evidence of it in the archives of history. Today's Russia, with its rampant, notorious state-sponsored homophobia, with its recent decriminalization of domestic violence, and its politics just as oppressive internally as aggressive externally, serves as a very close, observable, and palpable showcase of that truth. One just has to pay attention.
Over the recent decades, Western countries have made amazing progress in terms of LGBT equality. It often correlated with drastic changes in the makeup of political leadership. In Spain, for example, in the last years of Franco's dictatorship 83% of the population said they "wanted to see homosexuality erased". Now, a few decades later, following the country's transition to democracy and, most recently, a progressive coalition government, 90% of the population approve the marriage equality law. But even in a country like Spain, despite all the legislative gains, homophobic and transphobic aggressions still affect the lives of ordinary LGBT people on a daily basis. During the last Pride's week, more than 300 acts of hate have been reported only in Madrid. Therefore, for all the importance of legislative change, even in the most progressive countries, power over keeps its stronghold in the culture and the minds of too many people.
On the part of socioeconomically privileged LGBT folk, it's very near-sighted to believe that anti-homophobic progress is natural and irreversible. Things can spin on a dime, and Trump's America serves as a living proof — aside from the political sphere, there's too much work to be done in the culture, and much of that work is long overdue.
Through the universally understandable language of art and emotion, instead of politics, that is exactly the difference my book, and my long overdue career as a performing artist, is meant to create.