Gay Men in Russia: The Life of Shame and Secrecy
1,053 views   /  18 Jun 2015
Russian Accent decided to find out what it is to be gay in contemporary Russia. We spoke with two gay men, who told us about their daily lives and struggles they go through because of their sexual orientation.
By Afanasiy Pervomaisky
Before I start, first of all, I’d like to acknowledge that the article was written on the basis of two interviews with gay men, and therefore it doesn’t intend to generalize and/or draw conclusions about the entire Russian LGBT-community, which also includes lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Second, the article doesn’t intend to judge, shame, promote or defend gay activism in Russia. We simply want our readers to hear marginalized voices from the Russian gay community.
I referred to both men by their initials, S. R. and N. S., due to safety concerns. S. R. is in his early thirties and lives in Moscow with his boyfriend. N. S. is in his mid-twenties, a recent university graduate, who lives in St. Petersburg. S. R. chose to answer my questions in Russian, and therefore I translated them using my own words. Since N. S. opted to use English, I left the original wording unaltered.
Russian Accent: When did you come out as a gay man?
S. R: It was during the first year of university, so I must have been 18. Even then, I only told a few of my close friends whom I really trusted. With everyone else in my university group I wasn’t comfortable, so I kept it as a secret. However, people must have known that I was gay, as I often heard laughter behind my back. These days, I often tell people about my sexual orientation when they ask about it, but only if I can trust them. Unfortunately, I’m not comfortable yet to tell my parents that I’m gay.
N. S: In case of coming out publicly 50 percent of my communication circle has no idea about my sexual orientation – I mean my colleagues, my professional connections, my relatives (whom I meet once a year) don’t have to be in my life fully and they don’t want to, so I don’t see the point of sharing my sexual orientation with them.
My first inner homosexual urge, to be honest, was set up abroad, in Malta. There I met nice people, who showed me «the best sides» of being gay… That moment kind of provoked me to come out of the closet to my friends. That is interesting because here in Russia, in multimillion mega-city like Moscow, I couldn’t find any reasons to share my gaylife with the «straight» world.
Russian Accent: What are the main obstacles of being a gay man in Russia?
S. R: It is a big problem at work. I can’t tell my co-workers that I’m gay. A friend of mine, who is also gay, lost his job a couple of years ago, when his boss found out about his sexual orientation and ended up firing him. Oftentimes, I have to lie at my work to fit in with other co-workers. I’m sure a gay man will find it hard to get promoted at work.
Being gay caused me problems when looking to rent an apartment. My partner and I had to lie that we were cousins, when landlords asked how come two males wanted to live together in one bedroom apartment. When you tell landlords the truth, almost all of them either hang up the phone or walk away from you. It’s sad.
When I told people about my sexual orientation, some of them turned away from me. When I go out, I’m always careful when I meet random people, because they might end up being homophobes. I need to be picky and selective when talking to people and making friends.
N. S: Honestly, I don’t see obstacles. It is not hard or complicated. This is life and it passes through. And I don’t want to give some credits to that boiler of unhappiness because to be a gay in a country considered to be homophobic in the first place and to decide that is more important to live your life no matter what is not a big deal.
It is a hard decision you think, but it is not a hard decision. It is your life. First time I was worried about people might turn away. I kept texting to Paul, friend of mine from Malta, and he simply said: “If your friends do not accept you the way you are, I am sorry to say that they are not true friends. But by time your friends will accept you.” There was tricky because since then I was like checking people whether they are in my league or not. The point is that no one feels hurt and I found my own league.
Russian Accent: Have you been a victim of verbal harassment?
S. R: It happens often. People called me ‘Pidor’ [Russian for ‘faggot’]. It’s very insulting, I felt hurt every time people called me that.
N. S: Of course! ‘Pidor,’ ‘Pedik,’ whatever… I remember one funny moment. In the early years of Vkontakte [Russian Social Network] there was an anonymous option and using that people could text you online anonymous messages. Once this tool was launched I gathered a ‘fan-club.’ Can you imagine that? Someone was so annoyed about my orientation so he/she kept attacking me. It was so pathetic.
Russian Accent: Are you currently dating anyone? If yes, can you show signs of affection to your boyfriend in public without having to fear for your safety?
S. R: Yes, I currently live together with my boyfriend. However, when we’re in public together, we absolutely can’t show signs of affection to each other, because we fear that people around us will freak out, call us names and even physically attack us. Sometimes, when we’re out together, I really want to hold my boyfriend’s hand, touch his hair or put my arm around him, just like heterosexual couples do it all the time. I’m so jealous of them [heterosexual couples].
N. S: Once, my boyfriend and I were kissing in the elevator and we didn’t mind ‘cause nobody was there. But one day, I saw that the camera was installed. I was like “sh*t, Artem [N.S.’ boyfriend], that is horrible!” I tried to stop making out, but Artem stayed calm and kept kissing me even more aggressively. The next day, I stopped kissing in that elevator. One day on our way to a club he hugged me and held my hand and we went through Lubyanskaya Ploschad [central Moscow]. Did I feel at risk? Yes. Did I care? No.
Russian Accent: How did the anti-gay propaganda law affect your life? Did you change your opinion about the country?
S. R: I became more scared of anything. I’m even scared to stand up for my rights as a gay man. I don’t even know what to think about Russia anymore. I like my country, but this law just showed me that as a society we’re left far behind from other countries, where there’s less homophobia.
N. S: Hopefully this law is not a catastrophe. I mean I try to believe that is not. Our government is inert in case of implementation of its own rules so I hope that the law will not work out as the government wants it to.
Russian Accent: So, do you agree then that in order to live more or less comfortably you have to constantly live ‘in the closet’?
S. R: Yes, absolutely. I can’t be comfortable in public when I openly express my sexual orientation. Overall, it’s very scary. It’s true that if I don’t tell anyone that I’m gay, I don’t have problems most of the time. But then, I can’t really be myself, as I always have to hide the essential part of who I really am. Some people say that ‘the closet’ is big and one can learn to live in it, but at the end of the day, I still live ‘in the closet’. I’m still not completely free.
N. S: No. Living “in the closet” might be convenient for some period of time, when you are exploring yourself, kind of “taking your time”. But time comes when you feel that you could share your thoughts and you could be carefully listened by your team. Comfort we can build at least.
The views and opinions contained in this article are those of the author and the interviewees. They do not necessarily represent the views of Russian Accent.
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