We have come a long way in the last several years, here in the USA. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the number of states, that have the freedom to marry the person they love, or the ability for gay couples to adopt children, or for that matter, at the time of the Stonewall riots, that we, as the LGBT community would have gained as much of the acceptance that we have today. Of course, there is still a lot that has to be done, but consider an alternative, that seems like a time machine trip to the past, and for some of us, there will be a sense of gratitude for what we have, even thou many of our community will tell you that, where they live, it might still feel like the 60’s and 70’s, similar to the city of Sochi…
…where preparations for the Olympic Games are under way, and where the city’s gay scene is quietly thriving—by keeping mum about Putin’s crackdowns on LGBT rights.
With just over 100 days left before the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the city vibrates with activity. And so was Sochi’s only gay club, Mayak (or “The Beacon”). Just recently, the club pulsed with a couple hundred visitors, both gay and straight—love birds danced the night away, spinning on the shining floor. Some lip-synched to the chorus of a Russian song: “Pei, Pei, Pei Menia,” or “Drink, Drink, Drink Me.”
Earlier that day, Russian police had arrested 67 gay activists protesting against the country’s new anti-gay propaganda law in St. Petersburg, and in Moscow, legislators had discussed the idea of banning gay couples from having a child with a surrogate mother. But here in Sochi, gays and lesbians said they felt safe, at least behind closed doors.
The key to safety and peace, the club’s managers explained, was apparently keeping a low profile. Neither Mayak’s managers nor the club’s visitors belonged to outspoken LGBT groups fighting for their rights in the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who have called for the Sochi Olympics to become a venue for protest. “The closet life is safer,” said a stout girl in a short dress, who was dancing with her girlfriend in the club. “We are safe for as long as we do not express our feelings in the streets.
No random pedestrian would ever notice the club’s anonymous entrance on Sochi’s seaside embankment. Music cannot be heard from outside. The club’s door has no sign on it, yet inside, some walls were covered in large photographs of semi-nude men.
Andrei Tanichev and Roman Kochagov, the club’s managers, could not imagine kissing in public on Sochi streets. “Only 20 years ago, when we still lived in the USSR, they sent homosexuals to prison as criminals,” Kochagov, said. “The less we protest on the streets, the less we blow up the scandal, the safer our lives will be.” Like many Russian gay couples concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere in their home country, Tanichev and Kochagov thought about moving abroad, but they were denied asylum in Europe.
“We are safe for as long as we do not express our feelings in the streets. But if we kiss outside of a school or kindergarten, we get arrested.”
Sochi’s population is largely multicultural, even though the city is located in the heart of the North Caucuses, Russia’s southern region and surrounded with Muslim republics. “I prefer to avoid comments on gay issues, as here in the North Caucuses this is a very sensitive topic, more than anywhere else in the country,” said one of the leaders for the Kremlin’s United Russia party in Sochi, Victor Teplyakov. But he offered assurance that gay athletes coming to Sochi for the Games should not be concerned about their safety—“as long,” he added, “as they do not demonstrate their relations in front of children.”
As I leave the mental scene, of the gay community in Sochi, I’m left with a sense of frustration, over how they feel compelled to live, hidden, secretly, and most of all, restrained from being able to express their true feelings openly.
We are not all activists, but I will say I’m grateful for those who are, for so many of them have helped us reach the level of acceptance that we’ve reached so far, and look forward to how fantastic it’s likely to be in the future.
Photos & excerpts from here