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In Russia, Students Say A Queen Tribute Band Bit The Dust For 'Promoting Homosexuality'

“It’s a shame they didn’t let us have a little fun,” one of the St. Petersburg students said about their performance of a song by Queen (above).
“It’s a shame they didn’t let us have a little fun,” one of the St. Petersburg students said about their performance of a song by Queen (above).

MOSCOW -- On Valentine’s Day, School No. 375 in St. Petersburg hosted a battle of tribute bands. For the competition, titled Odin v Odin (which roughly translates as “perfect likeness”), students dressed in gold chains, saris, and flamboyant costumes made famous by Western rock acts of the 1970s and '80s.

Zara Larsson’s Lush Life got a new spin, Justin Bieber was honored, and Kiss was embodied by a spirited effort complete with face paint and tinfoil. Last up was a rendition of Queen’s I Want To Break Free. After sitting through 10 performances, the audience was presumably primed for a grand finale.

'Our School Will Not Promote...Homosexuality'

But the culminating act was apparently one step too far for the organizers. Just as they prepared to take the stage dressed in attire evoking the video clip that cemented the cult status of the British band’s 1984 track, the troupe was allegedly approached by teachers and instructed to remain backstage.

“When we had already changed and were ready to perform, [they] came up to us and told us: ‘What is this look? You should go to a strip club,’” one of the students told local media on condition of anonymity.

“Our school will not promote homophobia and homosexuality,” he recalled one teacher saying, adding ironically: “Clearly our respected teachers don’t understand the meaning of the words homophobia and homosexuality, which cancel each other out.”

The four and a half-minute Queen clip includes scenes featuring front man Freddie Mercury eating grapes in the embrace of half-naked dancers and sliding in a leotard over a row of reclining bodies.

Photographs the 11th-grade students provided to Russian media -- in which one of them poses in a bouffant wig, a tight pink T-shirt, and what appears to be a skirt – suggested that the performance was meant to be based on the opening scene in which Mercury cleans a living room dressed like that, but with a mustache, while other band members prance around the house in attire also traditionally associated with women.

The student said teachers initially approved the performance, but ultimately prohibited the troupe from going on stage once they saw their costumes.

“An English teacher watched the Queen video on her phone and approved of it. But on the day of the performance we heard all kinds of comments about us,” the student told the mass-circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The glued-on mustache annoyed them. And the imitation breasts were also denounced.”

State institutions like schools and universities are wary of falling afoul of legislation that limits some forms of expression in Russia, where social conservatives and the Russian Orthodox Church have gained prominence as President Vladimir Putin has touted what he calls traditional Russian values. Since Putin signed a law in 2013 banning the spread of gay “propaganda” to minors, any act seen as promoting homosexuality in the presence of people under 18 can potentially be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

'A Little Fun'

However, censorship aimed at staying in line with such policies has backfired at times in the past.

In January 2018, disciplinary action by the Russian Armed Forces against a group of cadets who filmed themselves dancing in their underwear to Benny Benassi’s version of the Rolling Stones song Satisfaction prompted imitation acts across Russia to record clips in solidarity with the young men, racking up millions of views online and embarrassing the authorities for their heavy-handed initial reaction.

In comments to Fontanka on February 14, authorities in the St. Petersburg district where School No. 375 is located denied that the performance had been banned because of “homosexual propaganda.” That afternoon was set aside for the first stage of the Odin v Odin competition, and the group in question was asked to polish up their choreography and perform in the next round.

The student who spoke to Russian media denied this, insisting the group had lost its chance to perform at a one-time event.

“It’s a shame they didn’t let us have a little fun,” he said.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.