Changing perceptions of what it is like to be gay in Moscow – one tour at a time

Changing perceptions of what it is like to be gay in Moscow – one tour at a time

In this file photo from 1 May 2013, gay rights activists carry rainbow flags as they march during a May Day rally in St. Petersburg, Russia.

(AP/Dmitry Lovetsky)
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“Russia has a reputation of being unwelcoming to the LGBT community. I’d like to break the stereotype and show my guests an incredible side of the city’s friendly LGBT life, with its glamour, amazing drag shows, cool bars, hot men, ‘Russian gay banyas [steam rooms]’ and more!”

This is how 32-year-old English teacher Alex Ankudinov describes the ‘ lifestyle experience’ that he offers through the Airbnb platform. “When I go to Europe people ask me to say hi to Putin and wonder how I am still alive. They think it’s like Saudi Arabia here,” he tells Equal Times. By taking visitors to some of Moscow’s most popular gay clubs, Alex says that he wants to change this perception with tourists visiting the capital city. “I am openly gay and nobody has ever said a word to me,” he affirms.

These stereotypes, however, do not come from thin air. Although data is hard to come by, Russian human rights activists say there has been an increase in the number of hate crimes committed against gay men in particular since the passing of a 2013 law to ban the spreading of “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Prior to that, in 2012, Moscow courts banned all gay pride parades for a term of 100 years. Homosexuality was a criminal offence in Russia until 1993, classified as a mental disorder until 1999 and the influence of the conservative Orthodox Church – the head of which reportedly compared marriage equality laws to those enacted in Nazi Germany – has also helped create an environment where the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Russians are compromised.

In its 2017 LGBTI equality index Rainbow Europe, ILGA-Europe ranked Russia as the second worst country in Europe (after Azerbaijan) for gay rights.

“LGBTI people continued to experience intolerance on a daily basis,” it said. “These human rights infringements can be anything from difficulties using ID cards that differ from your gender expression, discrimination when applying for a job, to more physical threats such as bias-motivated violence.”

But this is a world away from Alex’s experiences – both personally and the ones he offers. Equal Times asked to join his tour one Friday night in April. We agree to meet him at 10pm in front of an American fast food joint in Kitay-Gorod, a cultural hotspot in Moscow. At the said time, Alex is running a little late: “Hey! Two minutes and I’m there,” he warns us on WhatsApp. To spot him amongst the busy crowd, he specifies that he is “wearing a pink shirt”.

He usually starts his ‘Queer Moscow with a local’ expedition a few hundred metres away at the Plevna Chapel. A monument to the fallen Russian soldiers of the battle for the siege of Plevna during the Russo-Turkish War, in the 1990s it was also known as a hub for gay hook-ups, “when we didn’t have apps for that,” Alex explains. But we skip that part. It’s already late and nobody else is registered for the tour. “It has been two months without anyone,” he says. Since he started the tours in November 2017, 12 tourists have taken part. If that does not seem like a lot, Alex says “it’s because Moscow isn’t very attractive to foreigners. We will see how things will turn during the World Cup,” he says while walking up the street to Mono Bar, a trendy gay nightclub in Moscow.

Every homophobic cloud has a silver lining

While walking towards Mono Bar, Alex explains why his tour has not been affected by Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law. “The law only forbids so-called ‘gay propaganda’ towards children,” Alex explains. But how the law is interpreted and applied is another thing. Since it was signed into law in June 2013, a number of cases have been brought to prosecution. Most recently, last month the gay health website Parni Plus (Guys Plus) was blocked for “challenging family values”, as was the website Gay.ru in March.

“But it isn’t just about prosecutions. The ‘gay propaganda’ law is about fostering intolerance, and changing the way society views some of its most vulnerable members,” said the global anti-censorship network IFEX last year.

However, Alex says that there is a positive side to all this: as a result of the 2013 legislation, the issue of LGBTI rights in Russia has been pushed to the forefront, with each new case providing an opportunity to improve conditions in Russia.

As we enter Mono Bar, it clearly a second home for him. Alex greets the doormen, the barmen, some of the customers and wishes a happy birthday to the manager, who, in return, offers him a glass of wine. As soon as we reach a table, Alex opens up about his personal story. Growing up in a small town somewhere in the Kaluga region, south-west of Moscow, Alex quickly realised that he was “different”. “The more I grew mature, the more I knew I was gay,” he recalls. “At that time there was no information on the subject, which made it more difficult than today.”

At 17 he moved to Moscow to study journalism. “I met gay friends, they took me to gay places. I wasn’t alone anymore,” he says. He then spent several months in the United States, which gave him another cherished opportunity to live in a place where his sexuality wasn’t an issue. When Alex came back in Russia, he fell in love and had his first long-term relationship. It was that point that he decided to come out to his mother, which he describes as a difficult experience. Although she eventually came to terms with the situation, she initially took him to a psychologist because “she was shocked” by his admission.

What is truly shocking, however, are the allegations of the brutal detention, beatings and torture of men perceived as gay or bisexual in the southern Russia republic of Chechnya, as detailed by a series of 2017 reports published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. How can the poor treatment of gay people in Russia be a stereotype if such things still happen, we ask? Disarmed, Alex sadly admits: “It’s true, they can be beaten up there. I feel sorry for them.” And what about Moscow? As liberal as it seems, is it really that safe for members of the LGBTI community? Yes and no, he responds. Like in many other places around the world, “you need to be careful in front of some people. Hooligans, for example.”

Bringing the community together

That being said, Moscow has many places where gay men can freely meet. Ranging from big clubs like the Central Station or the Boyz Club to smaller spots like the Nice Bar or Nashe Café. For lesbians, however, the scope of possibilities is very restricted. A research paper by Katja Sarajeva, who studied lesbian spaces in the city, observed that: “The gay clubs are populated by gay men and to a certain extent their heterosexual women friends which tends to make lesbians invisible even within homosexual spaces.”

When contacted by Equal Times, Sarajeva further commented that while women in Russia tend to have less disposable income to spend on socialising, they are also not being catered to. “If entrepreneurs assume that gay men are interested in party[ing], drink[ing] and sex they can easily translate this into a somewhat profitable business.” She said that it is assumed that women, particularly gay women, are interested in things “such as poetry, drinking tea and cats”. As a result, business owners don’t go after their custom because it is considered less profitable. “But this is patriarchy at work.”

To discuss these kinds of issues, the LGBTI community in Russia would benefit from being more coordinated, Alex suggests, adding that the alarming increase in Russia’s HIV rate is amongst the most urgent issues to be tackled.

In January 2017, it was estimated that Russia accounts for almost two-thirds of all new HIV cases in Europe, and has the largest number of citizens infected with HIV in Europe. As a result, aside from the tours, Alex also organises fun events that deal with safe sex. “I started to organise quiz nights here at Mono, and I wanted to be socially useful. I explain that sex can be different but it has to be safe.” He invites volunteers from the LGBTI community health group the LaSky Project to talk about HIV and sexually-transmitted infections. When time allows, Alex also takes tourists to their office, where they can be screened.

More than that, Alex wants to see a new kind of community meet-up, more structured and professional. “We have a gay life but it’s not united. We don’t have industry and charity gatherings,” he argues. “I would like that, but we need time. It will eventually happen, and at some point, we will even have a gay pride.”