When Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov went on Kremlin-backed channel RT this week to defend themselves from British allegations that they attacked a former Russian double agent and his daughter with a nerve agent on British soil, the interview wasn’t only about whether they poisoned anyone.
Instead, it raised questions about whether the two men are gay.
The pair claimed in the RT interview that they were in Salisbury around the time that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned but were there on holiday to see the spire atop Salisbury Cathedral. In the interview, they claimed friends had recommended Salisbury as a tourist destination.
But when they were asked about the bottle of perfume that British man Charlie Rowley claims he found and gave to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, who later died of Novichok poisoning, one of them replied by asking, “Don’t you think it’s silly for straight men to have women’s perfume with them?”
“Speaking of straight men, all footage features you two together,” replied the interviewer, Margarita Simonyan. “You spent time together, you lived together, you went for a walk together. What do you have in common that you spend so much time together?”
When the men tried to deflect the question away from their personal lives, she continued by saying: “No need to justify yourselves. Whether you had a single or double bed is the least of the world’s concerns right now.”
The intrusive questions about their sexuality raised speculation that the host was trying to deflect attention from suspected poisoning and instead focus viewers' attention on how exactly the two men know each other. Observers warned against seeing the inquiry as anything more than a distraction mechanism.
Radio Free Europe wrote that the news channel Russia-24 later presented a piece on Salisbury, describing it as a place that embodies “modern European tolerance.” The presenter stood in front of a screen that said “Salisbury Pride,” with an image of the much-discussed steeple painted as a rainbow.
Memes and comments about the pair’s potential relationship began to circulate on social media. On one Russian-language Donald Trump parody account, the user posted an image from “Brokeback Mountain,” the 2005 film about a gay relationship, with the caption “Let’s go to Salisbury! I’ll show you the spire!”
Homosexuality remains a taboo subject in Russia, where those who identify as LGBT are often harassed and intimidated. Same-sex marriage is illegal, and a controversial 2013 ban on “gay propaganda” is in place. According to Human Rights Watch, the ban “effectively prohibits any positive information about ‘nontraditional sexual relations’ from public discussion.”
PinkNews, a British news outlet that markets itself for the LGBT community, said that “[i]t would hardly be the first time Russian propaganda outlets have weaponised sexuality for disinformation campaigns.”
The Center for European Reform tweeted that its director of foreign policy, Ian Bond, told the BBC that the interview could have intended to “cause confusion, put smoke out there to obscure the battlefield.”
He pointed to the fact that some find it believable that the suspects were indeed a gay couple going on vacation in Salisbury as evidence that such distractions can be effective.
As for the woman who interviewed them? She wrote on Twitter that she doesn’t know “if they’re gay or not.”
“They’re fashionable guys, as far as I can tell, with cute beards and haircuts, tight pants, biceps bulging under their sweaters,” she wrote. “They didn’t hit on me, but I’m past the hitting-on age.”
Amie Ferris-Rotman contributed to this report from Moscow.